Had I been writing this column 80 years ago, I would probably have lined up with those critics vigorously opposed to the talkies. “Who needs sound?” we might have argued. By the mid-1920’s film had developed into an incredibly sophisticated visual medium. The Russians had mastered editing and spectacle; the Germans developed lighting and set design that put the darkest crannies of Freud’s id right up on the screen, and the Americans had managed to translate the grittiness of their realist novels to film. Most people today equate silent film with slapstick comedy, but that misconception merely indicates that sound film became such an overwhelming presence in cultural history that it all but obliterated its predecessor.
The Incredibles, a delightful animated feature from the Disney/Pixar nation-state, should drive us academic critics to a prolonged examination of conscience about our varied miscalculations in the past. And it should likewise invite serious film consumers to ask a few questions about the nature of the movies. Traditionally, cinema captures real objects, much like photography, and the team of artists restructures and rearranges these “real” things into an artifact that we call a film. For us radical conservatives, computer-enhanced images and computer-generated graphics break an implicit contract with the viewer. The clashing armies in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, for example, are essentially different from the massed warriors in D. W. Griffith’s “Intolerance.” In 1916, Griffith assembled hordes of extras and moved them around by shouting through a megaphone while the camera caught their movement. The crowds in “Lord of the Rings” were largely assembled by technicians riding a mouse around a Mac. The purists among us feel cheated. We want real mobs, not pixels.
Cartoons, of course, have been with us from the beginnings of the industry in both the United States and France, and gradually they morphed into the animated feature. Remember the ur-texts from childhood: “Fantasia Without Pot,” “Snow White and the Seven Vertically-Challenged Proletarians,” “Bambi Versus the N.R.A.” and “Dumbo Defies NASA.” Those of us who make a living out of going to the movies have been content, it seems, to lump all of them together as “cartoon” features, directed to children but on occasion enjoyed (with some embarrassment) by adults. But something strange has been going on in our media culture. With the popularity and distinctly adult content of television series like “The Simpsons,” “South Park” and, most recently, “Drawn Together,” coupled with a blossoming of the comic-book mania and computer games, the old category of “animated feature” has suffered from a softening of the margins. What is a cartoon? A movie that’s drawn? “Kill Bill” (I and II) might be considered Quentin Tarantino cartoons with live actors. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” could be Ang Lee’s live-action comic book, just the same as the Batman, Spider-man or Superman series. When do we cross the border?
Along comes a smart, film-savvy feature like “The Incredibles,” and we critic types are forced once again to reshuffle our presuppositions so that we can understand the films on their own terms and help our readers and students figure out what’s happening to the movies and to their culture. With the relentless popularity of the Shrek films, “Finding Nemo,” the Lion King series, “Monsters, Inc.,” and this year “The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie,” it seems important to pay attention to these trends.
“The Incredibles” turns its own attention to an analysis of the fantasy reality (pardon my paradox) that the movies have substituted for real reality (pardon my redundancy). Like the American Western, it appears to ooze with nostalgia for the good old days when real heroes stalked the frontier, only to reveal with a wink that such super-cowboys and lawmen never existed after all. The personas of Wyatt Earp and John Wayne are cartoons, not reality. The movies made the West as we understand it today. Can it be that cartoons have defined heroism?
Here’s how heroism works in one movie. Mr. Incredible (the voice of Craig Nelson), a legendary crime fighter in his dashing unitard but without cape, runs into hard times when his increasingly litigious constituents start suing him for interfering with their lives and wrecking their property. Their lawyers recognize deep pockets, even in a superhero’s tights. The government stops picking up the legal fees for its freelance super lawmen, and Mr. I, along with many other legends of the polychrome panel, goes into a hero protection plan, under an assumed name. He marries the heroine of his dreams, Elastigirl (twang of Holly Hunter), and settles into a dull life in the suburbs. Through inactivity, his abs of steel soon cascade over his belt buckle. He has trouble getting in and out of his subcompact car, but that’s all he can afford as an insurance adjuster in a miserable office. His three children have superhero genes. Dash runs at the speed of light. Violet, as in shrinking, can disappear at whim and when approached, build an impenetrable force field around herself. In other words, she is a typical teenager. Jack Jack, the baby, hasn’t yet made his move from diapers to dynamo.
A new superhero has come on the scene, but he is a pathetic imitation of the giants of the past. Syndrome admits he has no real powers, but he invents gadgets to enable him to conquer the world, much like the traditional mad scientist, or like Disney/Pixar. With the survival of the universe in doubt, the Incredibles rally to do battle with Syndrome. Mr. I gets a new spandex jumpsuit from his former designer, and as a bonus, she throws in costumes for the family. It’s just like the old days. Mr. I has a little trouble fastening his belt, and Mrs. I, née Elastigirl, checks the rearview mirror and is not pleased with what suburban housewifery has done to her once elastic buns. No matter. They’re off. Beware, ne’er-do-wells, wherever you are!
The story begins with a children’s book moral with disturbing overtones of Nietzsche’s superman. Dash wants to compete in a track meet at school, but with his nuclear Nikes, he will leave the less super in the dust and thereby blow the cover of the entire family. The family debates the cost involved with fitting in, weighing the unfair advantage of their super powers against the tyranny of mediocrity. Should they hide their talents to be just like everyone else? The name the Incredibles adopt is Parr. They are not good, nor bad, just par. Is this what has happened to American egalitarianism in the age of P.C.? A good question. It’s not really resolved, but director and screenwriter Brad Bird can be suspected of sympathies toward old-fashioned meritocracy.
Much of the fun of these adventures comes from its shameless quotation and deconstruction of other movies. In the process it suggests rather strongly that under the celluloid many flesh-and-blood box-office champions of the past are really cartoons themselves. Before he goes out to do battle with the forces of evil, Mr. I reclaims his waistline with a regimen taken from the Rocky films. Dash races through the forest, pursued by baddies on flying saucer motorcycles, as though he were an outtake from the famous chase scene in “Star Wars.” As Mr. I bounces from skyscraper to skyscraper, evading explosions and fireballs by split-seconds, one could expect Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson to take a bow for raising the action/adventure thriller to an icon familiar enough to be parodied in a cartoon. The music and the exotic tropical island, the site of Syndrome’s diabolical laboratories, high-tech nastiness and faceless armies, mirror the various Evil Empires of James Bond’s villains.
One major difference should be noted, however. With her flowing white hair and hyperactive eyelashes, Mirage, the femme fatale who lures Mr. I into Syndrome’s trap, is sultry enough, but unlike the usual blonde Bondshells, she is simply skinny and wears a business suit designed for an airline “stewardess” of the 1950’s. After all, this is a family movie.
If my reaction seems a bit schizophrenic, it is. The kid and movie fan in me enjoyed every minute of this lunacy. (I did a rave review of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” a few years ago, so my reactions have some bit of consistency.) But the professorial film critic in me left the theater with an academic headache. What can I make of this new type of film that uses computer animation to the exclusion of human presence on the screen, and how do the new techniques not only put an end to cinema, as we older critics have understood it, but how to they force us to reconsider the older films? How do we compare this film to Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd on one side, and to Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker on the other? Do we need new categories?
At the end of “Weekend” (1968), Jean-Luc Godard completes his devastating critique of contemporary society by dropping the customary title “The End” and substituting the cryptic phrases: “End of Story,” then “End of Cinema.” He may be prophetic. Technology may well have ended cinema, but it will take us a while to figure out what has replaced it. This may be a job that calls for Mr. Incredible.