The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Challenging children: The Incredibles

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

There’s a prevalent school of thought in film, TV and theater that kids can’t handle tough stuff – from violence to more adult themes like death and familial discord. They’re wrong, and symptoms of this idiocy include any number of golly-shucks-gee-whiz TV shows or movies that talk down to kids like they’re (at worst) retarded or (at best) morons. Adults do it all the time. Just think of some bozo who, when they talk to a child, immediately jumps an octave in delivery and ends all their sentences with a condescending, interrogative up-turn (“You drew that, Timmy? How nice! Good for you!”).

These people are idiots . Kids can handle it, and they know when we’re talking down to them. They can sense it, smell it – and they rightfully shut us out.

Fighting against this pea-brained paradigm is a school of thought that has its roots in children’s theater and creative drama and that is led by a bunch of people you’ve never heard of: Suzan Zeder, James Still and Rives Collins. Their philosophy is simple: write and act for children the same way you would for grown-ups – with commitment and energy – and do not, under any circumstances, talk down to your audience. Treat them like adults, and they’ll listen.

The Incredibles treats children like adults, and that’s why it kicks ass.

Idiots of the “kids are retarded ” school of thought remain convinced that the only way to hold a child’s attention is with bright colors, fast editing and a manic pace; and while these devices have a legitimate place in all of filmmaking, they are not necessary to hold anyone’s attention, much less a child’s. The crack team behind The Incredibles knows this, and they let the movie follow its own rhythms, trusting that the story’s honesty and integrity will bring everyone along, including the kiddies. I had the good fortune to sit next to a small child when I saw the movie, and I kept my eye on him to once again affirm this truth: honesty will hold anyone’s attention.

The first test for this idea came early in the movie, which follows a family of superheroes in a world where being super is illegal and the government has moved the super-powered population underground a la the Witness Protection Program. Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson, endowed with super-strength but refreshingly unable to fly), bored with his pedestrian life as an insurance claim handler, sneaks out with his friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson as a speed-skating cross between George Gervin and Bobby Drake) to save lives on the sly. The scene in question has these two superheroes-in-hiding sitting in a parked car and listening to the police scanner for a catastrophe worthy of their clandestine intervention.

Yes, animation by its very nature holds kids’ attention, but this scene has dim lighting, muted colors and quiet, naturalistic voice work. There are no quick cuts, fart jokes or cutesy sidekicks. Hell, the look and feel of the scene reminded me of Out of Sight, when Ed (George Clooney) tells Virgil (Ving Rhames), while sitting in a parked car, that he would die before going back to jail; it’s a scene about alienation (a chief theme in The Incredibles) whispered through blue and gray tones. Mr. Incredible and Frozone talk honestly and, again, quietly about their plight. And when I checked in on the child next to me, he wasn’t shifting around in his seat or bugging his father – he was riveted. In fact, this kid did talk to his father a lot throughout the movie, but only to ask his father for confirmation that the heroes were OK.

Honesty works. And looking back on my own development into a movie geek, I can remember countless examples of honest storytelling in “grown-up” movies that riveted me when I was a kid. Take Poltergeist, a movie that offers plenty of spooky goodies to interest a little kid, and yes, I still remember the man-eating tree, killer clown and giant spider-beast … but what’s the one scene that really stayed with me? My favorite scene when I was a kid? The scene where the female paranormal investigator (beautifully played by Beatrice Straight, she of the kick-ass, Oscar-winning cameo in Network) explains to a child about my age why ghosts exist. Yes, this scene takes place inside a suburban house (and as a de-facto Spielberg film, this setting places Poltergeist in the same proud company of E.T., Close Encounters and Jaws), but it’s a campfire ghost story. This matronly ghostbuster whispers her tale to the child, and I can still remember the curious way the light glittered in her eyes. This marked one of my first exposures to passion; the way someone lights up when they talk about what they love. Spielberg (whose style overpowers that of the nominal director, Tobe Hooper) knows this. Spielberg built a career on this idea, this truth, and far from being the pop-culture whore that the snobs would like to paint him as, he follows in the same proud footsteps as Suzan Zeder and James Still. Spielberg never forgot how tough it is to be a kid; how alien and weird everything is; and, most important, how fucking crazy adults seem to children. Spielberg kept those memories inside him. He put them in a little box that he keeps on a shelf near the front of his mind so he can peek inside it whenever he needs to tell one of his great fairy tales.

And like the great works of Spielberg (and every other Pixar film – why is Disney jettisoning them again?), The Incredibles looks inside that same box. Brad Bird and his team of supergeniuses remember what it was like to be an outcast (like the super-family’s daughter, Violet). They remember what it was like to get sent to the principal’s office (like the son, Dash). And while Bird and company focus on the parents’ alienation – working dead-end, suburban jobs while watching the joy drain from their marriage – Bird also adds hearty amounts of familial shenanigans, including a priceless, super-powered fight around the dinner table: Dash (the fastest kid alive) sprints around the table at roughly the speed of sound, while Violet (an invisible girl) goes transparent and slams her little brother with force-fields. This forces Mrs. Fantastic (mom, the former Elastigirl) to extend her rubberized limbs and grab the kids by their collars in a futile effort to stop the nuttiness. We laugh at this scene because it’s funny, yes, but we laugh more so because it’s true.

OK, fuck it. I have to gush independent of my thesis. This movie is perfect, and it achieves this level of perfection by hitting us with tropes both familiar and new from the canon of superhero mythology. Clearly this movie owes a lot to the James Bond series, which influences the brassy, Herrmann-esque score, the villain’s remote-island lair and all-around retro feel. And by combining these tenets and expectations, Bird ups the ante in the already fantastic renaissance in superhero movies that includes all four of the X-Men and Spider-Man movies.

What the hell am I talking about? Take the movie’s greatest creation: Edna “E” Mode, an eccentric fashion designer who finds her calling designing superhero costumes. Did you ever read a Batman comic and wonder if Bruce Wayne had to kill all the designers and contractors who built his stuff? Well, wonder no more, because Wayne probably went to Edna Mode, who is super-rich and surrounded by enough security to protect Fort Knox from a Goldfinger-Luthor tag-team. (One great moment: As she leads Elastigirl into her inner sanctum, Edna stops at a security checkpoint, where she provides her palm print, retinal scan and voice-print ID. “Edna Mode,” she says. The door opens, but a laser canon drops from the ceiling, trained on Elastigirl. Edna quickly adds, “And guest,” and the canon disappears.) Rumor has it that Bird modeled this character on Edith Head, who designed the costumes for most of Hitchcock’s movies. Whoever she’s modeled on, Edna is a joy. She’s one of those brash, eminent artistes who smokes with a cigarette holder and calls everyone dah-ling; a wacky genetic splice of Gianni Versace and Bond’s Q who lives in a groovy, 1960s ultra-mansion that looks like the The Standard and packs the technological punch of NORAD (seriously, Edna’s house is awesome – it’s like the Batcave as designed by Frank Lloyd Wright). Warner Brothers made four Batman movies, and they didn’t have anything half as cool as Edna.

The Incredibles doesn’t skimp on superheroic derring-do, either, and the guys behind next year’s Fantastic Four should either be peeing their pants or suing Pixar, because The Incredibles is not only one of the best superhero movies ever, it does super-team action better than both X-Men flicks put together – and it is through this super-team action that The Incredibles hits its stride, drawing on a device familiar to anyone who enjoys the work of Joss Whedon: unity through adversity. Characters in the Whedonverse (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly) and in The Incredibles have a great advantage over the rest of us mere mortals in the human experience: any time life sucks, one super-evil bad guy or another gives them something to fight for, thereby forcing them to forget about all the stupid shit that doesn’t matter.

(Side note: art this good transcends medium. Buffy? Angel? Firefly? The Incredibles? Six Feet Under? Star Trek: The Next Generation? The Shield? Alias? A jillion other great movies, from The Empire Strikes Back to Back to the Future? These are not movies or TV shows. Movie screens and television sets are merely their chariots. We’re lucky to have movies this good out there. Support them!)

But like Whedon and his magnificent programs, Bird remembers to challenge us with real-world issues, and he’s not afraid to frighten us or the kids in the audience. One striking scene in The Incredibles has Mom Incredible (Elastigirl) telling her kids – against her previous wishes – to use their powers. “You know the bad guys on the Saturday morning shows you like to watch?” she asks them. “Well, these people aren’t like them. They won’t exercise restraint with children.”

Wow. Bird, in a Disney cartoon, specifically says that the bad guys are willing to kill children, and indeed, at movie’s end, the chief villain, Syndrome (Jason Lee), kidnaps the Incredibles’ baby son – only to be thwarted by the same son’s emerging superpowers (which seem to be the abilities to turn into fire, lead and a demon. Cool!). I couldn’t believe that Bird and his team were willing to dig that deep, go that low, with their bad guy. Not in this, not in a PG-rated cartoon. Suffice it to say, I was totally impressed.

And in case anyone out there is still resisting this admittedly difficult idea that children can handle intense movies, even at a young age, I will point no further than myself, and my experience with such movies as Poltergeist, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom , Return to Oz … and White Nights. That’s right, White Nights, the Cold War drama with Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov. I can remember stumbling upon this movie, presumably aimed at grown-ups, on Showtime years ago and becoming engrossed in the story of these two ballet dancers trying to escape Soviet Russia. That was 1985 or ’86. I was all of 9 years old, and a good story pulled me in. I mention Return to Oz and the Indiana Jones movies as further examples of stories that scared the living fuck out of me but kept me coming back for more! Hell, remember when the two Nazi stooges’ faces start melting and Belloq’s fucking head explodes at the end of Raiders? I didn’t sleep for a week, and at the same time, I was thinking, “That was the coolest movie ever!” I begged my mom to rent it again … and a movie geek was born. I heartily encourage any parents reading out there to challenge their children with art. Challenge them. Make them think. Make them laugh. Frighten them. Astonish them. Give them hope, and introduce them to all the magic that’s waiting for them in movies like The Incredibles.