Bob Parr is too wide for the cubicle he sits in and the white collared shirt he wears. Just as the beat up insurance agent denies a weepy old lady’s claim, Bob gets a phone call from his wife, Helen. “I’m calling to celebrate a momentous occasion,” Helen says, while bathing the youngest child, Jack Jack, in the sink. “We’re now officially moved in!” With frustration and annoyance, Bob takes a deep breath and says, “Yeah, well, that’s great, honey.” 15 years earlier, Bob was 50 pounds leaner and saved the world under the superhero name, Mr. Incredible. Helen was single, sexy and went by the alias Elastigirl, named after her exceptional ability to stretch. Now married with three kids, the couple lives in a suburban home, hiding all traces of superpowers after the government’s superhero ban during the ‘glory days.’ Disney/Pixar’s CGI animated film, The Incredibles (2004, Dir: Brad Bird), comments on developing family life by contrasting an ideal 1950s America with an incredible fantasy life.
The Incredibles pays homage to the James Bond series created by Ian Fleming in the 1950s. From the credits featuring silhouetted characters, to the climatic action music, to a character who helps supply the Parr family with suits and proper equipment to complete their tasks (called ‘E,’ short for Edna—a tribute to ‘Q’ in the Bond films), the seemingly dangerous, yet intricately controlled world of Bond is apparent in the animation. Even so, this doesn’t represent the glory days the film refers to. The film’s glory days represent the time when superheroes saved the world freely—when there were no government restrictions keeping “supers” in line. The movie depicts this as being a time of the past, but also a time of advancement. Technology was prevalent and futuristic, despite being disguised through historical objects. The best example of this takes place in the opening scene. Bob is driving his 1950s-eque Oldsmobile when he turns the dial of an old car radio. When news of an armed gunman is broadcasted over the speakers, Bob hits a button, turning the car radio into a navigation system, putting his wheel on auto drive, and transforming the seats into his uniform dressing station. The glory days are identified with technology.
After the government’s ban, technology isn’t seen in the Parr’s suburban life. In fact, the post-glory days are designed similarly to the style of 1950s American life: one-story houses made of stone, Chevy-like cars parked in the garage, kids riding tricycles while chewing bubble gum, etc. It’s the time period after all the superheroes’ success, yet it’s more conservative and attributed to developing American roots.
In an excerpt from Bill Bryson’s book, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bryson comments on 1950s America:
“I can’t imagine there has ever been a more gratifying time or place to be alive than America in the 1950s. No country had ever known such prosperity… America in 1951 had a population of 150 million, slightly more than half as much as today, and only about a quarter as many cars. Men wore hats and ties almost everywhere they went. Women prepared every meal more or less from scratch. Milk came in bottles. The postman came on foot. Total government spending was $50bn a year, compared with $2,500bn now.”
Bird attempts to break the Disney mold through style of animation in The Incredibles. Compared to other animated Disney films (i.e. Finding Nemo, The Lion King), The Incredibles doesn’t harp on exquisite detail. The film features lush color and depth, but shape takes on a different form. The movie’s features are categorized by square shapes, which become clear in the closing credits featuring silhouetted characters. Especially in the case with Bob, the people are represented by square jaws and square noses. In addition, trees (especially the ones that line E’s driveway) are perfect squares. The characters don’t look believable: they’re too skinny, too short, or disproportional. When they’re running, hugging, and even sometimes talking, it looks as if the animation is still in development. In fact, the only time the animations look organized and of finished value is when the characters are displaying their superhero abilities. When Dash runs as a human would, he looks awkward, but when he runs to his extremely fast superhero speed, he looks more realistic.
Additionally, The Incredibles doesn’t follow the path of many of its predecessors. It may display a visual treat, but kids can’t turn to The Incredibles the same way they can to The Lion King or The Little Mermaid. On pages 105-106, Paul Wells writes in his book Animation and America:
“…contemporary Disney texts use songs and choreography from a utopian musical tradition that prioritise the use of spectacle as narrative, and contextualise, filter and/ or resist quasi-political messages and meanings…”
The Incredibles doesn’t have catchy phrases, sing-a-longs, or even a theme song for that matter. It also comments on more than quasi-political messages in the film, which will later be revealed. It’s a Disney movie that doesn’t want to conform to the Disney trend.
Yet it still does. Bird wants to emphasize the importance of family values by showing an alternative perspective of family norms. The Parr family is happiest during times of superpower activity. Thus, by shedding more realistic light on their superhero movements, Bird doesn’t want to emphasize the unhappiness associated with their more everyday movements. He decides against realistically animating the family in hopes of avoiding a realistic portrayal of an imperfect family. So in these regards, The Incredibles conforms to a more utopian life that Disney so often strives to display.
This display of a fantasy life provides a main shift in the movie’s narrative. Bob’s curiosity and desire to reenter the superhero business leads him to be kidnapped by Syndrome, the alias name of Buddy Pine. Syndrome’s island is both a utopian and dystopian fantastical setting. When Bob first arrives to the island, he’s amazed. He’s treated with shrimp cocktail, fruit, and a room with a beautiful view of the blue skies above and tropical forest below. But it’s funded by evil. Bob is quickly fooled by its seemingly perfect setting, and becomes a prisoner of the chaos that it’s associated with.
Mr. Incredible is representative of an older, less advanced America. He is currently being held hostage by an island that is technology. With monorails, rocket launchers, and parting waterfalls, the island has made Mr. Incredible weak and helpless. To survive, he’s relying primarily on his kids’ ability to adapt to the foreign surroundings and utilize their powers to the best of their abilities. The kids are unfamiliar with the superhero life, yet when they arrive on the island they seem to figure everything out with ease. Dash quickly learns how to fight, Violet quickly produces large protection shields in a matter of milliseconds, and Bob and Helen often rely on the kids to save them.
On one hand, The Incredibles wants its audience to stick with a strong belief in conservative family values, but on the other it wants audiences to accept that a chaotic life may bring about different, but still vital bonds. The Parr family uses all of their superhero strengths to help one another out. When one member’s powers aren’t enough, the others evaluate the situation and act accordingly. Even Jack Jack, who at the end was kidnapped by Syndrome, changes into forms such as a devil and a fireball to save himself.
By being allowed to display their individuality to its fullest, the Parrs seem more at ease. Even when he was fighting with security guards or running from deadly aircrafts, Dash is smiling and having fun. By the end, there was no longer a concealed craving that divided the Parr family, but rather the likeness of being different which unified them.
In the article “Family Togetherness and the Suburban Ideal,” Laura J. Miller writes,
“By providing such optimal conditions for togetherness, these structural features of suburbia may actually be exacerbating the strain of trying to live up to an ideal that is essentially unattainable.”
All in all, the Parr family’s time on the island helped them realize that the only way the American dream can work is if they don’t live the American dream.
The Incredibles compares 1950s suburban life with a fantasy world, avoiding any attribution to contemporary suburban life. James Cameron’s spy film True Lies (1994) is among many U.S. films that reference modern suburbia. Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a U.S. secret agent, an undercover job that’s even a secret to his wife and daughter. His family thinks he’s a computer salesman, but in reality he’s saving the world from terrorists. In a brief summary, Edward Porter writes, “Unlike 007, however, this spy is happily married: the film’s gimmick is that Arnie’s wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) knows nothing about his dangerous day job.” Much of the film involves Harry and Helen’s skepticism of one another. Helen is curious about her husband’s secret life, while Harry is curious about Helen’s ongoing relationship with a man named Simon. In fact, Harry’s interrogation of Helen under an anonymous identity provides many of the movie’s key scenes.
The Incredibles handles this idea behind suburban affairs in an unconventional manner. Laura J. Miller writes,
“The heightened rhetoric of family togetherness, as well as the domestic optimism of the 1950s, have certainly died down as people have become more aware of the breakups and pathologies that strike so many families… the large amount of divorce, domestic violence, child abuse, and talk of ‘dysfunctional’ families demonstrates that the family often does not resemble a tranquil and supportive haven.”
Mirage, Syndrome’s secretary who at first lures Bob, departs from Syndrome’s evil intentions and releases Bob from containment. In an act of happiness, Bob hugs Mirage, which coincides with the exact moment Helen walks into the room. But instead of Helen putting her head down and walking away from his husband’s ‘affair,’ she extends her long arm and punches Mirage in the face. It is then that Bob reels her in, gives her a big kiss, and reassures her as to where his heart remains.
True Lies differs in that the suspicion of an affair extends to a much greater degree. In fact, it becomes the focal point of the movie. The Incredibles breaks this preconceived notion of such a circumstance. Audiences expect this sequence to become a bigger issue. But instead, it’s quickly brushed off, and Helen and Bob continue on their escape to freedom. In fact, Helen dwells much longer on a suspicion of an affair while living in the suburbs (triggered by Bob and Mirage’s secret meetings about superhero work) when there was no visible evidence of any other woman existing. But on the island, when she actually witnesses Mirage and Bob hugging, the issue is quickly resolved. Any contemporary references to suburban life are readily avoided in order to emphasize the point of breaking out of the 1950s mold through fantasy.
The Incredibles often references the events of 9/11 (i.e. the Omnidroid set to collide into a building, an intense plane crash, etc.). The modern American life which is often defined by these tragic events can be compared to the 1950s and its threats of the Cold War. In the article “Reevaluating the ‘Old’ Cold War: A Dialectical Reading of Two 9/11 Narratives,” author Patricia Keeton writes,
“…the events of September 11, 2001, were not a departure, something new, but rather a continuation, an intensification, of U.S. Cold War foreign policy.”
Whether the evil is named or unnamed, terror threats affect the formation of a country and its family development. And no matter the time period, a certain type of incredibleness remains prominent with families who will do anything to save their loved ones.
Bryson, Bill. “Excerpt from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.” Guardian Unlimited (2006). 30 Apr. 2007
Keeton, Patricia. “Reevaluating the ‘Old’ Cold War: A Dialectical Reading of Two 9/11 Narratives.” Cinema Journal (2004), Vol. 43 Issue 4. 3 May 2007
Miller, Laura J. “Family Togetherness and the Suburban Ideal.” Sociological Forum (1995), Vol. 10 Issue 3. 3 May 2007
Monahan, Mark. “Must-have movies The Incredibles (2004), Directed by Brad Bird, The classics that every film-lover will want to own.” The Daily Telegraph (2006). 30 Apr. 2007
Porter, Edward. “Film Choice.” The Sunday Times (2005). 3 May 2007
Wells, Paul. Animation and America. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
4 thoughts on “American Dissonance: The Worlds of Suburbia and Fantasy in ‘The Incredibles’”
Just saw A Walk in the Woods, adapted from the Bryson book. Is Thunderbolt a good read?
Definitely recommended. I love his writing style, and found his story super relatable and interesting. How was the Walk in the Woods adaptation?
It was good: funny, poignant, a bit rambling. My wife and I had been to the starting point of the Appalachian Trail in GA not too long ago, so that was interesting to see on film.
Oh nice – I’m gonna put it on my watchlist then… Thanks for reading! Many more posts in the works…