There’s a certain irony in the fact that The Incredibles, with its undeniably gay-themed subtext about accepting those who are “different,” should arrive the same week conventional wisdom has it that the gay-rights debate cost John Kerry the presidency. It’s perhaps even more ironic that the film is apt to be welcomed with open arms by the very people who, it seems, are so opposed to gay rights.
In this regard, The Incredibles may just be the most subversive movie of the year (though its subtext is clearly derived from X Men and X 2). The movie’s central theme is that no one should have to hide what he or she is in order to fit into society. It’s a family-friendly rallying cry against conformity, and far more daring fare than the tastelessness that passes for daring in Team America.
There’s nothing all that unusual about this kind of subtext, even in an animated film. Lilo and Stitch had a similar theme, though it was far more “coded,” sneaking in the word “abomination” to refer to its outsider character and slyly reworking the definition of family. The only “dodge” used by The Incredibles is the mild distancing effect of setting the action in some vaguely defined retro world that smacks of the 1950s (the usual yardstick decade for conformity). It’s a shaky proposition, since the characters often speak in modern terminology and the story is grounded in a lawsuit-happy era that owes little to the ’50s.
Thematically, I have the highest regard for the film, but I am less enamored of it as art or entertainment. Oh, the movie’s beautifully crafted, and writer/director Brad Bird penned a clever, often very funny screenplay. But The Incredibles, at 115 minutes, is just too long. I could have done with 20 minutes less, especially since the final sections of the film are largely interchangeable with those of dozens of live-action superhero movies.
The film starts with a terrific premise: Superheroes have been forced into a kind of witness protection program, where they are instructed to “fit in or get out.” (Yes, that’s pretty much the same premise found in Shrek.) But, of course, you can’t keep a good superhero down. Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson, The Skulls) may tell his wife, Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), that he and his friend Lucius/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) are going bowling, but in reality they’re out doing a little hero work. Bob is bored to distraction with his job as an insurance claims adjuster and with his suburban existence (“They keep finding new ways to celebrate mediocrity”), so he’s easy prey when he’s recruited for a little superhero moonlighting by the enigmatic Mirage (Elizabeth Pena, Impostor).
What Mr. Incredible doesn’t reckon on is that there’s an agenda at work behind this assignment, one that pits him against a supervillain, Syndrome (Jason Lee, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), that will cause Bob’s family and Frozone to become their true selves. This is all well and good, and the gags and characters (especially superhero costume-designer Edna “E” Mode, who is voiced by the director himself) are delightful and very funny. It’s actually worth the price of admission just to hear Edna’s rationale for vetoing a cape for Bob’s new Mr. Incredible outfit.
There are similarly great moments that poke fun at the conventions of the genre — especially the tendency of supervillains to indulge in verbosity (“You sly dog, you got me monologuing!”), and the James Bond gags and other movie references are clever enough. But the film loses its comedic thrust in its last act and ends up being the very thing it otherwise makes sport of. And that’s too bad, because when it’s on its game, The Incredibles is pretty terrific.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke