Saturday, November 20, 2004

I am not that much of a sucker for animation films - not that I don't enjoy them but the standard format of such pictures - a hero, with his loyal sidekick, fights the villains and wins the love of his life - gets a little boring at times. Animation films that I've loved are rare - The Triplets of Belleville, Waking Life, Ice Age (this one came closest to being generic but heaven knows why, it just brought , a lump to my throat - especially in its remarkably poignant scenes where the woolly mammoth voiced by Ray Romano contemplates his family's and consequently his own extinction). Another film - one that never quite leaves my mind - was Brad Bird's lovely adaptation of Ted Hughes book about the Iron Giant. Now Bird has made another one called the Incredibles, which is, frankly, incredible.

The fundamental premise is simple: What if superheroes, besides their powers, are just like us? - and the Incredibles are indeed just like any other family. They love, bicker, fight, and enjoy. There are other things no less striking. Whatever be their powers, all the superheroes seem to be uniformly respectful of authority (i.e. the government and the judiciary). They did not revolt even as the Government and the ungrateful citizenry banished them into oblivion (when indeed, considering their powers, they could have). They do not seem to have any feelings of superiority - and indeed besides being resentful at the thought of being disallowed to do what they do best - they aren't snobs. So far, so good.

The points that the film does not dwell on, however, prove to be more than a little disturbing. The Incredibles is, at it's heart, a political movie. Consider the situation it brings up. The superheroes of the world have become a liability because of a blase ungrateful public (in an awesome riff, the commuters on a train who would otherwise have fallen to their deaths merely escape with injuries and then sue the superhero for those.). They are therefore banished - to live lives of obscurity and forbidden to practise their trade (which is basically saving the world from the bad guys). As I mentioned before, that they do not even think of revolting is heartening. As is the fact that they are susceptible to the same laws as everyone else.

It is in comparing The Incredibles to Bryan Singer's Xmen franchise and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series that we can see some clear differences. InX-men, the human race feels threatened by the mutants among them. But there's a crucial difference. In the Xmen world, anyone, mutant or nonmutant, could beget mutant children. X2, in fact, had a touching "coming out" scene - where a mutant boy comes out to his parents and his siblings, who react with bewilderment, confusion and even with outright hostility. In The Incredibles, on the other hand, one can only infer that the superheroes are a class (or a caste) unto themselves, that their "superness", by itself, is passed down generations. The eponymous family, in fact, is the quintessential super family - Dad, Mom, daughter, son and even the baby. Bird's screenplay doesn't talk about the "bad" supers - i.e. superheroes who use their powers for their own selfish good. Our superheroes are all assumed to be good - they probably have a goodness gene that complements their super gene.

Contrast this also with J. K. Rowlings Muggle world and you'll see how radically different The Incredibles is. Rowlings' fantasy world is composed of wizards and Muggles. Yet Rowlings is careful in making the boundary between these worlds fluid; Hermione Granger, for instance, is born to Muggle parents while both Ron and Harry come from "proper" wizard families;Harry's mother was born to a Muggle family; even Lord Voldemort has a Muggle father. The wizard world is also experiencing a backlash against the Mudbloods (a typically Rowling name for people like Hermione, born to Muggle parents), a backlash that Professor Dumbledore (and by implication Rowling herself) dissaproves of because, one can only assume, it is abhorrent to their liberal priciples. Rowling's fantasy world has been constructed with careful attention to details such as these. Bird, on the other hand, has not thought about the troubling aspects that his movie only hints at.

But he redeems himself in the way he has created the villain of the movie. Called Syndrome, this character of the arch-villain is the most interesting aspect of the Incredibles. Syndrome (he called himself IncrediBoy when he was young and hero-worshipped Mr Incredible) is *not* a superhero. He is a gifted kid, capable of making great gizmos and gadgets but his fervent desire is to be a super. Since superdom is inherited and not earned, that's clearly impossible. But Syndrome manages, by the sheer force of his ingenuity, to even outdo the superheroes he so admires. He is also an egalitarian by instinct - his aim, as he claims, is to make a world where "everyone is a super". I must confess I felt a twinge of sympathy for Syndrome. As voiced by Jason Lee (whatever happened to him after Almost Famous?), it's clear that what motivates Syndrome is a hunger for the recognition of his powers - powers that he has honed to perfection and also a desire to overcome the cards life has dealt him. But as the movie makes clear, superdom is about being human and about wanting to help others, come what may. Syndrome's desire for recognition, ultimately proves to be his down-fall. Had he not lacked humanity, the movie argues, he would have been greater than any super he ever knew. Amen to that.

ps: Here's a link to an article in the NYT on the Incredibles. I must have missed it before

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