MOTW: Incredible Adventure, Incredible Experience: On the Greatness of "The Incredibles"

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A family of undercover superheroes, while trying to live the quiet suburban life, are forced into action to save the world.
Photo Credit: Buena Vista Pictures
June 18th, 2013

MOTW: Incredible Adventure, Incredible Experience: On the Greatness of "The Incredibles"

"The Incredibles" is a 2004 animated action film that made history by setting a new bar for films of its type by drawing in the whole family and setting them down for 115 minutes of a fun animated adventure. The concept is brilliant, the script is tight and paced well, and the whole thing is brought to life in vibrant colors and, what was then, the state-of-the art computer graphics. While each of these factors was important to the movie's eventual triumph at the box office and its success in winning the hearts of its audiences, there has to be more. Some additional factor drove the success of "The Incredibles," and it is worth looking into what it was, if only to encourage filmmakers to try to catch that lightning in a bottle once more.

The concepts driving "The Incredibles" are as simple as they are fun, and they actually owe quite a lot to the groundbreaking work that had been done years before by the X-Men series of graphic novels. Themes such as power and responsibility and love and loss, as well as the inevitable aging process, are explored via the device of imagining a city full of superheroes who are, for political reasons, stripped of their freedom to operate and restricted to dull lives as private citizens. This state of affairs comes to a jarring halt when a new villain emerges who seems intent on wiping them out and crushing the city that so long ago rejected him.

The script for "The Incredibles" was brilliant and well constructed. It can be difficult to write for an animated feature, if only for the general lack of actors' feedback and inability to deliver a quick rewrite on the fly. The effort is complicated further by the appeal that the film needs to have for viewers in at least two key demographics. While kids may be drawn in by bright friendly colors and the promise of a fun fantasy, adults tend to be more discriminating and will demand that more work be put into keeping them occupied. The challenge to a writer is thus to go high and low at the same time and to lard up the script with any number of inside jokes that were always intended to sail over the kids' heads and land squarely on the parents. This puts a special set of demands on a writing crew. Fortunately, the writers behind "The Incredibles" were more than up to the task.

The animation in this movie was groundbreaking for its vibrant color palette and fearless use of shading and contrast to demand attention and focus the audience on key elements in every scene. While older, more traditional cell-based animation often delivers subdues hues and a noticeable flattening of picture elements, the digital shots of "The Incredibles" accomplishes the opposite. Shapes bulge and colors pop as one action sequence gives way to another, and subtle changes in shading clue the audience into the filmmakers' desired shift in mood. The decision to fully digitize "The Incredibles" allowed for a precise frame-by-frame manipulation of every line and shade, giving the movie exactly the feel that was intended by its animators.

None of this really captures the essence of what it is, exactly, that makes "The Incredibles" great. It's all well and good to write, direct, and animate a darling children's romp, but it's something else entirely to draw in audiences of all ages and send them away buzzing about the unique experience they just had in the theater. That special something may be termed the movie's spirit or motive force. "The Incredibles" wants very badly to take its audience into new lands. By exploring the concept of the family, bonds of loyalty, and bureaucratic red tape, "The Incredibles" masters ground that's hardly been approached by other animated films and actually marks a temporary resurgence of the old philosophy of the German expressionist school of filmmaking. The movie draws in its viewers and really makes them care about a set of characters who will soon be pitted against a cruel and unfeeling world: a world they find they can't get out of saving after all, despite its rejection of them.

These are deep intellectual waters to be tread by what is basically a kid's adventure tale. This is as it should be, since adults will find something to enjoy, while the children in the audience will have something to work toward understanding, even if only to figure out what their parents are laughing at throughout the film.