Random thoughts on most things from A. M. Craig.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

New to You: Part 1, The Incredibles

I recently decided that not everything I put on my blog here needs to be newly written. I have lots of stuff that I've already written, drawn, filmed, etc., that the vast majority of my not-vast audience has never seen. I'll use some of that to augment my posting efforts. So, in line with my constant blogging on film, here is a paper I wrote for my Intro to Film class a couple years ago. I still like it.

The Incredibles
The Incredibles is one of Pixar's masterpieces. As an animated film, it has a natural appeal to children, but the film also deals with material that is very significant to a "grown-up" world. It shows the fantasy of super heroes, the embodiment of American idealism, the archetype of our moral sense, and then shows their deconstruction through a "value added" paradigm. By adding "value" to individuals simply so nobody feels left out, the new world of the supers negated excellence. Their society demanded homogeneity and called it "equality". We see in them that when good is taken for granted and mediocrity glorified, that good is well on its way to being rejected. This theme is exemplified through the editing, production design, and acting.

At the beginning of the film we see the main characters in a "talking-head" documentary style interview. This communicates to the audience the supers' status as subjects of the public eye. People know who they are. They are celebrities of sorts. They are not new, but are well established public figures, probably household names. The good they provide has been there for long enough that it is no longer novel. It is something that is being taken for granted. This fact, as we will see, is communicated several ways throughout the rest of the film, but the interviews at the beginning of the film help set the stage. We understand their place in their society enough to understand how they got to where they are during the rest of the film.

In a similar fashion, when the newsreel rolls, we see the transformation taking place. The illustrations of court proceedings, the headlines of newspapers, and the news footage all let the audience understand that the supers are no longer welcome among their neighbors. This mantagist editing technique is a powerful communicator. We see the theme unfolding. This is the beginning of their rejection. Comparing their society to our own, it is almost laughable to think that a people would demand crime fighters to cease and desist, to end their services and fall into the background. But however absurd this may seem, the same thing happens in modern America. Think about the recent headlines concerning displays of the Ten Commandments in public places.
Just as the supers embodied the ideals and moral good of their world, so the Ten Commandments represent the ideals and moral good of ours. This is just one example, though, of a theme that touches upon some of our most cherished values.

While nothing we see in the Incredibles exists in reality, almost all of the aspects of traditional production are still necessary, including production design. It is also interesting to note that the objects in an intangible computer animation are only slightly less real than the fake backdrops and fake props of some of our favorite films. They are representations that further communicate the theme to the audience. One of the best examples of this in The Incredibles is when Robert Parr (Mr. Incredible) is relegated to work as an insurance claims agent. His cubicle is one among scores of identical cubicles. They are small, drab and cramped. The only thing that sets his cubicle apart from the rest is the oversized pillar taking up already precious real estate in his workspace. There is obviously no special care taken to give him a larger cubicle (or even prevent him from getting the smallest one) because he is a larger man. His differences are not recognized; he is only supposed to fit in.

Everything in the office has a gray hue. There are very few well defined blacks and whites in the office. This is indicative of the theme in several ways. Just as the diegetic society of the Incredibles has rejected good and permitted evil to survive, so the office colors evade a clear distinction. This is all the perfect backdrop for the short scene where Robert Parr is supposed to deny an old woman her insurance claim. Mr. Incredible has, through no fault of his own, gone from protecting people from harm to denying them help after they have been harmed. Shortly after this scene, we see Robert called into his boss' office. The room is the same numb gray as the rest of the office. There is a charted line-graph on one of the walls that does not rise or fall, indicating no change over time. Again, homogeneity, sameness. There are four clocks behind the desk set to the exact same time. And the boss sharpens four pencils to the exact same length and lines them up exactly to the lines on his desk calendar. The obvious production design decisions here were for a reason. Everything is the same, and the philosophy is explained in the boss' speech to Bob. "A Company is like an enormous clock. It only works if all the cogs mesh together!" What he is failing to remember is that the company is also supposed to serve a purpose, in his case provide financial reimbursement to those who have undergone unforeseen expenses. No matter how well the clock is working, it doesn't do any good unless it helps people who need to know the time.

Another aspect of the production design is the overall retro feel to the Incredibles. The interior of their home and their manner of dress recall the 1950's, a time often thought of as "simpler". It is now seen as a golden era, when everything was in its right place. The black-and-white footage of public hearings in the newsreels also is reminiscent of the 50's. McCarthyism looked and sounded very similar. The ideas of a secret menace, secret identities, and questionable allegiances that threatened the common good apply to both situations, the one drawing inspiration from the other. Many of the scenes on Syndrome's island take their queues from the Sean Connery James Bond films of that same time period. And who was James Bond fighting in those films? The same Communism that Joseph McCarthy used to incite a modern witch hunt. The threat that faced the people in the Incredibles was the same that faced the people of that time. Yes, there was a real threat of foreign aggressors, as in James Bond, but the real menace was the enemy within the gates, the internal schism and deceiving philosophy, as in the McCarthy trials.

The "acting" in The Incredibles might seem a strange thing to consider, mostly because there are no real actors on camera. The vocal talent of several well known actors are employed, but they only contribute part of what results in convincing characters for an animated film. The character designers, the animators, and especially the writers all help create the "actors" in this kind of feature. They prove a convincing cast.

When Dash is coming home with his mother after being sent to the office at school, they have a discussion about him finding better outlets for his energy. "Maybe I could, if you'd let me go out for sports" is his reply. Helen Parr (Elastigirl) answers in her motherly and disciplining tone, "Dash, right now the world just wants us to fit in, and to fit in, we just gotta be like everybody else.”
"But Dad said our powers were nothing to be ashamed of. Our powers make us special."
"Everybody’s special, Dash."
"Which is another way of saying nobody is." Homogeneity in the guise of "equality" claims another victim.
Dash has here caught on to the real meaning of the situation. He is not allowed to be special in deed, only in word, along with everybody else. If he were to perform anywhere near his full potential, that would reveal how truly special he was. It would have meant praise from some and resentment from others. It may even have meant physical attack from those that fear him as a threat. Those with power are almost always feared by those without, weather it is deserved or not. Syndrome later on in the film makes the same observation. "When I'm old and I've had my fun, I'll sell my inventions, so everyone can be superheroes, everyone can be super. And when everyone is super...no one will be." Syndrome exemplifies the confusion of good and evil, the graying of right and wrong. His idea of a Hero is someone who provides drama and theatricality, someone who is on top, no matter how they got there. The good the supers did isn't even recognized by Syndrome, he mistakes it for some kind of self-aggrandizement. Because the good the supers provide has been rejected, Syndrome has plotted to create an artificial need for them again and provide a counterfeit solution, himself.

The layers of meaning and appeal in The Incredibles are impressive. The expert use of film techniques results in a movie that can be enjoyed by young and old and just about any demographic in between. And aside from the entertainment value, the theme is important to note and learn from. Though we may not have super heroes and villains in our world, the prejudices and false assumptions that are portrayed play a real role in our life and society. May our culture not fall prey to the “Syndrome” of confused morals.


pam said...

So were you happy with the grade you got on the paper?

Austin said...

I aced that class. Got an A on this one. I was pleased.