How do you make a kids’ movie that adults can stand to watch–and watch over and over again, once it comes out on video? One approach is to load it with references to pop culture, so everyone can feel fashionably knowing. But five years later those same refs will be unfashionable, and in a couple of decades incomprehensible. Or you could go for plenty of gross stuff, bathroom jokes and double-entendres. That might amuse the less-mature segments of the grownup audience, but it wears mighty thin on repetition, and makes responsible parents uncomfortable.
Is there any solution? Well, how about an enthralling plot, compelling characters, genuine humor, and a stirring message? It’s so crazy it just might work.
That’s the strategy that Pixar Studios has followed for the last ten years. From their first feature-length animation, Toy Story (1995), through A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc, and last year’s blockbuster Finding Nemo, Pixar has put more effort into developing complex characters and thought-provoking themes than many a live-action movie.
Pixar sets the bar high, and this latest film sails over it like a speeding bullet. I went expecting to screen a kids’ movie, but gradually the fact that I was watching an animation melted away. The wall of the theater melted away. As the plot unfolded, revealing unexpected dangers and surprises, it looked worthy of James Bond. And as the pro-family themes appeared (middle-aged boredom, temptation, fidelity), it looked worthy of James Dobson. Yes, this is a superhero action movie about the sanctity of marriage. As Mr. Incredible’s daughter Violet (voiced by Sarah Vowell) tells her little brother, “Mom and Dad’s life could be in danger. Or worse-their marriage!”
Now that we’re in a post 11/2 universe, the themes of The Incredibles look downright prescient. Early on, there’s a knock against the notion of a right to suicide, of all things. Mr. Incredible, a blond, hawknosed powerhouse with a chest the size of a Volkswagen, flies to catch a forlorn citizen who leapt from the top of a building. But the citizen suffered a wrenched neck in the process, and as his lawyer exclaims, “He didn’t ask to be saved, he didn’t want to be saved,” so Mr. Incredible is being slapped with a wrongful-life suit. The idea catches on, and resentful, tort-happy rescuees file so many suits against their heroes that the good guys must go into hiding. It’s a federally funded “Superhero Relocation Program.”
Fast-forward 15 years, and Mr. Incredible/Bob Parr (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) is reviewing insurance claims in a pinched fluorescent cubicle he could wear as a suit. His wife, Elastigirl/Helen Parr (deliciously voiced by Holly Hunter) is a full-time mom. Daughter Violet is a shy teen, the kind who wants to disappear, and does–that’s her superpower. And son Dashiell (Spencer Fox) can run so fast that–well, you’ll see. That leaves baby Jack-Jack, who “doesn’t have any powers,” they say.
If the first point will discomfort euthanasia enthusiasts, the second will do the same for nanny-schoolers. While public schools across America are eliminating honor rolls and honors classes to spare the tender esteem of low achievers, Bob Parr gripes that “They keep inventing new ways to celebrate mediocrity.” Young Dash wants to go out for sports, but his parents have discouraged him, because his superpowers would reveal the family’s secret. And maybe it wouldn’t be fair? “Dad says our powers make us special,” he protests to his mom. “Everyone is special, Dash,” Helen says. “Which is another way of saying no one is,” Dash mutters.
Bob is dying to get back into the superhero game, and it is a sultry invitation to defeat a rebellious robot that gets him, and eventually his whole family, into trouble. You’ll be well rewarded to learn the rest in a theatre seat, but let me make one more point about Pixar movies overall.
Most kids’ entertainment is about kids. Pixar movies are about adults. They show children what adults are supposed to do–to be brave and self-sacrificing, to defend children even at risk to themselves, to give even in the face of ingratitude. This is wise because, after all, children aren’t going to remain children. Just as we encourage them daily to grow in the practical skills of adulthood, they’ll need these kind of skills too if they are going to be faithful, responsible spouses and parents.
Many kids sitting in theater seats don’t have a daddy like Nemo’s, who would go to the end of the ocean to save their lives. They don’t have a daddy like Dash and Violet’s, who can be crushed only by the thought that he has lost them, and whose strength rebounds instantly when he learns they need his help. These kids don’t have daddy-figures like Woody and Mike and Sullivan, who love and guard the children who enter their care. They don’t have a daddy like that, but one day they may be a daddy like that, or have a clear idea of the kind of future daddy they need to marry. If this is all that Pixar has done, it has done a most eminent thing.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.