I bring to you the 6th and second last part of “Tyro’s”, Pixar: The Storytellers series. It focuses this week on Brad Bird’s highly successful and critically acclaimed, “The Incredibles”. Enjoy!
In The Incredibles, what is the first shot we see of Mr Incredible? He’s not battling arch-villains, wrestling with toppling buildings or super sized machines, in other words, he’s not doing superhero stuff. We get that, but it comes later. No, our first shot of our superhero is of him struggling. And struggling with what? Aforementioned super sized machines? No, with a clip on microphone – something small, fragile, something he’s not used to and can’t manage. As he says himself “I can break through walls, I just can’t…” How many other superheroes have you seen struggling with microphones? The audience don’t consciously think about this stuff, but it’s all to do with first impressions. Our opening shot of a protagonist implicitly, subliminally affects us, sets us up for what to expect from this character, and in this case, the film: a different kind of superhero film.
After the opening shot, what do they then talk about? Identity. Who these people are. They then talk about family, settling down. After that, what more do we need to know to be keyed into the film? Nothing, we’ve go: “struggling”, “identity” and “family”. Again, we’re not consciously thinking out loud, jotting it all down on a notepad: “Hmm, opening shot: superhero struggling, different source of conflict than normal superheroes, they ta>lk about identity, and family. I’m no JJ Gittes, but I’d say this film is about…” We don’t explicitly do this stuff, but implicitly we now know what to expect.
The following “Glory Days” sequence continues this setting up of what to expect. Mr Incredible juggles saving a cat and stopping criminals in a getaway car; there’s the entrance of Buddy, a wannabe sidekick, again something new and different (and comical); we then get Elastigirl and the romance factor, setting up romance as a part of the story; and finally, at the altar, Elastigirl says: “If we’re going to make this work, you have to be more than Mr Incredible”.
r>After a montage showing the decline of superheroes, and the relinquishing of their identities, we cut to several years later. Through the next two sequences we’re shown the family, who are all unhappy with their life, and Bob yearning to recapture the glory days. In short, Bob is struggling to be “more than Mr Incredible”. And what has every scene revolved around, or debated? Identity. The third sequence, which starts with Bob in his boss’ office, culminates with Bob accepting ‘the job’ from the mysterious employer. This is a major event, so major in fact (given the world we’ve been introduced to, and how late it arrives in the story) that not only does it serve as the Inciting Incident, the one thing that kicks off the story, but it spins the action into a whole new direction, providing a firm underlying dramatic basis that the telling will now revolve around. It’s an unconventional thing to do, normally these two events come at separate times: Buzz arrives, and then “Strange Things Happen” and Woody is firmly usurped from his world; Boo enters Sulley’s world, and then he decides to get her back through her door, for example. This is just a variety of the way to tell a story, and it works beautifully.
I touched on sub plots briefly with Toy Story 2, but The Incredibles is the first film to really embrace them, and use them to create the controlling the idea. First, there’s Bob’s central plot. For a superhero yearning to revive the good old days, getting called back into action is the best possible thing that could have happened to him. And for a while, in the montage, it continues to be the best thing – it rejuvenates his family and his relationship with Helen.
But then Helen’s plot starts when she thinks Bob’s having an affair. Back with Bob, things turn bad when Syndrome reveals himself, a major reversal that then provides a new dramatic basis for the telling to revolve around: Bob is no longer working for a mysterious employer, he’s discovered an archenemy and sets about stopping him. Then, back with Helen, her story takes a dramatic turn when Edna convinces her to fly to the island and rescue her husband – get back in touch with her superhero self. Shortly after this, the two kids discover the super suits, the event that starts their story. They then make the decision to go with Helen to the island – but we don’t see this decision, it occurs off screen. This could have been done to save time, but the important effect it has is to de-emphasise the kids’ plot, because we don’t go through their full story, thus our emotions aren’t fully invested with them: we’re mainly following Bob, then Helen, then the kids.
So all the plots are now established: Bob’s, Helen’s and the kid’s. But what effect, emotionally, does this have on us? Are the family together? No, they’re divided, split up, separate. Then, when they’re all on the island, what happens? They unite and fight together briefly, before being captured by Syndrome, and end up imprisoned. Syndrome then leaves to become the new superhero, and this climaxes the penultimate act of all the plots. In one way or another, they all went to the island with a goal, but they’ve failed in achieving it. A negative climax, a victory by the antagonist and the forces of antagonism in the character’s lives.
What happens next is crucial to the meaning of the film. Bob has that little speech, where he effectively says he was stupid to ignore his family and try to revive the glory days. Thanks to Violet, they escape, and arrive in the city. But Bob wants to do this on his own, not for some macho reason, but because, emotionally, he can’t risk losing his family. The characters then make their ‘crisis decision’, the last ditch attempt at overcoming the antagonism to ultimately succeed. And what is this decision? To work together.
The result is they succeed, they defeat the robot, but this is a false ending – Syndrome still remains. In a variant of the same decision, they work together again, and are finally triumphant. For the characters, the outcome is triply positive: the world, their identity, and the family were all stake, but all saved. ‘We save our world, identity and family when we use our strengths together.’
What’s important to note though, is how the subplots have contributed to this meaning. When they make the decision to act as a family, Helen’s and the kid’s plots merge back with Bob’s plot and the family act as what’s called a ‘plural protagonist’ – more than one person lies at the heart of the plot. So, in a way that Toy Story 2 didn’t, the subplots have served to enrich and give the film its real meaning and theme. It’s yet another way to tell a story, and has been used to wonderful effect by Brad Bird with this film.
It’s done similarly in Little Miss Sunshine: a dysfunctional, disparate family have to band together to travel across America. Here, there’s the plural protagonist of the family, struggling through the physical journey, but there are also several sub plots for the family members each going through their own emotional journey. As these plots gradually end negatively, the family then come together and the story ends in overwhelming positive fashion. For a darker alternative, study Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly: at the start of that film is our only shot of the family all in the same frame, and as the story progresses they become more and more fractured, and the camera rarely unites more than a couple characters in the same shot.
The use of subplots isn’t the only thing that makes The Incredibles the film it is, there’s the wonderfully realised characters, the brilliant comedy scenes (Frozone searching for his suit, the family arguing about directions to get to the robot, and Dash’s race at the end), the antagonism, etc etc, but they’re all a given by now. You should be able to see the elements of my previous analyses in this film too. Also, just as I stated with Finding Nemo, the pointlessness of a sequel should be clear to see. The family are united and they’ve got their identity back, what more needs to be said? We love the characters and the great moments in the film, but they all stemmed from the film’s theme, the emotional basis, and so trying to replicate those moments in a sequel would be futile. Brad Bird said, although I imagine he was humouring the questioner, that he’d only do a sequel if he could find a good enough story. Good luck, I say.
Next week I take a look at Cars, and wrap up this series of articles with a conclusion.