In his book ‘The Buddha In The Robot’, Masahiro Mori raised the notion of the ‘Uncanny Valley’. As applied to robotics, it suggests that anything that looks almost human actually generates a negative emotional response in humans, and that it is actually preferable to create with fewer realistic human characteristics. Recently, this argument has been applied to the computer generated characters of cinema, where the animated characters of Final Fantasy and Polar Express are coming across as a little creepy.
For their first real stab at a story about humans – albeit incredible ones – Pixar have chosen not to go down this path. All stylised curves and accentuated physical forms, the characters that populate The Incredibles owe more to Tex Avery and comic book artists such as Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko rather than the recent attempts at photo-realism. But The Incredibles is so much more than some beautifully rendered models.
With a ten-year run of universal box office and critical success, waiting for Pixar to drop the ball has become something of a sport. The mismatched-buddy-road-movie formula that has worked for them so far threatens to become as staid as parent company Disney’s own songs-and-sidekicks routine.
But director/writer Brad Bird (who, after the similarly fifties-tinged Iron Giant, is becoming that rare thing: an animation auteur) somehow manages to take all the right risks and creates something quite unique. Rather than adhere to any tried-and-tested family movie structure, Bird aims for a deconstruction of the superhero mythos, with a plot that owes more to Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel ‘Watchmen’ than anything else – even including the (then-prescient) climactic terrorising of downtown New York.
It also manages to avoid the origin story/initial adventures structure typical of the recent superhero cycle. We are given no explanation as to how super-couple Mr Incredible and Elastigirl gained their powers (their childrens’ abilities we can presumably attribute to a fluke of good breeding), we simply accept that they have them.
The Incredibles is aimed at a slightly older audience than the usual western animated fare, but this doesn’t mean that is it simply littered with parent-targeted double-entendres that fly over the kiddie’s heads. This is a family film that deals with violence and loss. The audience are treated to onscreen muggings, a montage of superhero deaths, even a suicide attempt.
Although this shows a maturity unprecedented in most family movies, it is a logical (if risky) progression for Pixar. If they have maintained one central theme to their impressive canon of films, it is one of existential crisis – think of the perpetually lost and lonely Dory in Finding Nemo or Woody’s acceptance of obsolescence in Toy Story 2 – and The Incredibles skillfully interweaves similar concerns into its plot. As a depiction of male midlife crisis it ranks alongside other explorations on this theme such as American Beauty or Wonderboys. Bird, a veteran of The Simpsons' creative team, is adept at making the drama gel with the comedy, and enhance one with the other. For example, the aforementioned superhero death montage is arguably the funniest scene in the film, but also foreshadows the danger to come.
Rather than simply showing off their latest technological breakthroughs at the expense of audience empathy and stumbling into the ‘Uncanny Valley’, Pixar pay tribute to their animation and comic book forebears. That it was created with computers is almost irrelevant. The Incredibles deliberately avoids the mistake of attempting to look ‘realistic’, and in creating such luscious stylised cartoon visuals it creates the perfect framework for a fantastical story about a very real family.
Originally written for Sight & Sound/BFI Postgraduate Certificate in Film Journalism.