Those Fantastic Incredibles!

I don’t know how I missed seeing The Incredibles earlier, but it is now my all-time favorite Pixar film. Overall, it is a clever, imaginative, and fun take on the super-hero genre. On top of that, it really shines when it comes to the female characters.

First of all, let me introduce one of my new favorite movie characters: Edna Mode.

Have you ever wondered where super-heroes get those fabulous costumes? Well, wonder no more! They’re designed by Edna Mode.

Edna is brilliant, clever, powerful, and — surprisingly for a movie — not particularly glamorous. As I’ve said before, I don’t object to female characters being beautiful, glamorous, sexy, etc. What I don’t like is that in movie-land practically all sympathetic female characters have to be beautiful. It gives a weird message that women don’t count for anything (or don’t exist) unless they’re pretty, whereas males can be any size shape or form. I love that Edna’s own personal glamor is a non-issue because it’s overshadowed by how amusingly eccentric she is. She’s the sort of “funny little character” that the typical screenwriter-on-autopilot would have made male by default.

But as a mom, I love the mom (Elastigirl) even more. I think the character gives a positive and (crazily enough) realistic portrait of a successful woman making typical sacrifices (expected of women) when raising a family.

I particularly like the scene where Elastigirl is flying a plane (where she has discovered two of her kids have stowed away) and suddenly finds the plane under attack. Obviously this specific scenario doesn’t happen much in real life, and yet it was a great portrait of what maternal multi-tasking is like in a moment of danger: dealing with the danger itself with one hand while dealing with the frightened children with the other.

I’ve become so jaded by all of these kids’ films with the disposable mom character that it was absolutely thrilling for me to finally see a kids’-movie scene where the mom takes control in a time of crisis, and saves her kids and herself.

This is probably my favorite line in the movie:

Everybody calm down. I’ll tell you what we’re not going to do. We’re not going to panic, we’re not going to — Look out! [She quickly pushes them out of harms way before resuming her pep talk.]

My kids love to watch all of the extra material on the DVD (deleted scenes, etc.), and the transformation of this film provided a fascinating contrast with the transformation of the Jungle Book II. As you may recall, in the Jungle Book II, they started with a potentially interesting female character who was systematically reduced to the point where there was no danger of her distracting the audience from the all-important male character. Surprisingly, the transformation of The Incredibles went the other way. Originally, the flight-under-attack scene had a male pilot flying the plane for Elastigirl and the kids. He was axed because introducing (and killing) his character added irrelevant complexity. I’m glad because the final version of the scene is a lot more dramatic than the original (unused) version.

The other bit that mercifully got the axe was a scene where a mean, bitchy career woman disses Elastigirl for being a stay-at-home-mom, and they get into a fight. Here’s what the director says about it:

This is based on a thing that my wife has had to go through. She worked in film editing, and when we first had our kids there was a decision about whether or not she should continue working (because she made good money) and I said that as long as we can bring in enough money, it would be great to have a mother around all the time. And we made it work, but one thing she noticed was that when you’re talking about work, everyone could connect with that, everyone got it, everyone was like “Hey, you’re another working person, isn’t this difficult and all that?” Once she said that she was a mother and worked in the house, their eyes glazed over and they kind of dismissed what she did.

I hate to have to explain what’s wrong with this. It’s not that he’s evil or deliberately sexist or anything like that. It’s that he has obviously never been in a position where he has to choose between career success and the needs of his kids — and, really, has no empathy for what it’s like to have to make such choices. I totally relate to the invisible woman hidden in his comment. Juggling career and family typically entails a lot of sacrifices for women (and regrets, regardless of which choices/sacrifices they make). It’s infuriating to see a man who has asked his wife to sacrifice her career turn around and glibly pin the resulting stress on his fantasy bitchy career women who (supposedly) just don’t value motherhood enough.

The other thing that jumps out at me about his comment is his definition of the word “everyone.” If you happen to be talking to a group of stay-at-home-moms, then you absolutely will not get the reaction he describes above! So his definition of “everyone” doesn’t include SAHMs. Wow, way to stand up for moms!

After watching this deleted scene, I’m actually surprised that the character of Elastigirl was portrayed so well.

Then there’s the other exceptional scene that makes this film pass the Bechdel test with flying colors:

Violet: Mom! What happened on the plane, I’m sorry. I mean, when you asked me to… I’m sorry…
Elastigirl: It isn’t your fault — it wasn’t fair for me to suddenly ask so much of you. But things are different now, and doubt is a luxury we can’t afford anymore, Sweetie. You have more power than you realize.

A mom acting as a mentor, giving her daughter advice on how to succeed and build her talents. Again, this is the sort of thing that shouldn’t be unusual in movies, but it is.

Of course this film has plenty of all-male buddy-buddy and hero-villain action. Despite what I’ve said so far, the star of the film really is Mr. Incredible. I’m just glad to finally see a big-budget kids’ film where the female characters are really characters, not just props and scenery.


  1. The Other Patrick says

    This is how the Fantastic Four-Films should have looked like. But I’m still a little iffy on the film, as with all Pixar films, at it ends up at a pretty traditional place: the multitasking mom, the somewhat cruder dad who nevertheless is the hero of the piece (and turns a beautiful woman to the side of good), and the powers, too: the women can stretch / multitask and become invisible, the men are strong, invulnerable and really fast. And the happy end is the boy winning the running trophies and the girl getting the quarterback.

    But on the other hand, I LOVE the sentiment about specialness: “If everyone’s special, then nobody’s special anymore” because I really dislike celebrating mediocrity and laziness. Brad Bird has made The Iron Giant before, which I also like, but this fits better into the story of Ratatouille which also celebrates excellence, or as Anton Ego says: “Not everyone is a great cook, but a great cook can come from any background.”

  2. says

    it ends up at a pretty traditional place: the multitasking mom, the somewhat cruder dad who nevertheless is the hero of the piece (and turns a beautiful woman to the side of good), and the powers, too: the women can stretch / multitask and become invisible, the men are strong, invulnerable and really fast.

    That’s true — it’s far from perfect in terms of gender roles.

    Since the story is about the male character (Mr. Incredible), he‘s the one who has a crisis and he‘s the one who learns and grows. Elastigirl is a secondary (static) character. And since the main character is having a crisis, the secondary character has to be the stable, rational one who’s holding everything together.

    The thing I like, though, is that at least Elastigirl is different from a lot of the usual female stereotypes. She’s rational, self-assured and competent instead of being the flaky, emotional one who always needs to be rescued. (Note that she went and rescued Mr. Incredible, but he never needed to rescue her.)

    It’s actually a little like the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” formula that I was discussing on my personal blog here. On the one hand — being a secondary character — she lacks growth and motivation. On the other hand, at least she’s interesting, whole, and secure in her own purposes — which is an improvement over the usual female stereotypes we get fed to us.

  3. says

    I really liked the family dynamics in The Incredibles, especially the portrayal of Violet’s and Dash’s relationship. I think too often there’s a lot of emphasis on gender wars or “boys will be boys”/”girls will be girls” when fictional siblings don’t 100% get along.

    Re: Edna, I know Brad Bird voiced her himself, and in international releases she’s been played by both male and female actors. I’m not sure how I feel about that, not least of which because Bird’s performance was spot-on and Edna is one of my favorite parts of the movie. Is it less appropriate to have male voice actors playing a female character when you can’t excuse something as it being the creator’s taking his vision into his own hands? Is this really a step forward in blind casting when the circumstances only apply to comedy? I’m just really glad he didn’t decide to go with the camp-femme-gay stereotype, now that I’m thinking about it.

  4. says

    I liked the Dash-Violet dynamic as well.

    I’m just really glad he didn’t decide to go with the camp-femme-gay stereotype, now that I’m thinking about it.

    Exactly, that’s what I was thinking too. If you plug the word “fashion” into the script-writing-computer-algorithm (that writes so many Hollywood scripts these days) it spits out the campy-gay stereotype. I’m glad that they didn’t just go with the standard formula.

  5. Scarlett says

    I saw The INcredibles years ago, but I do remember liking the mum for being resourceful and take-charge. The part I really liked was the bit about no-one being special if everyone was. I wonder if that was an intentional dig at so-called reality stars? (Dear God, now I’m reminded of my trip to Video Ezy and seeing the first season about the Kendra chick who was a playboy bunny. It seems every three months there’s a drop in what passes for talented enough to have your own show.)

  6. says

    Also on the extras for the Incredibles is a section where it profiles all the superheroes (or supers) that appeared in the movie, or posthumously, or through mention only. It rated them by intelligence, among other criteria–and Elastigirl rated *much* higher than her husband, or many other supers with that quality.

    Edna Mode is the bomb. I Heard she was patterned after Edith Head, a famous Hollywood designer. If you read the credits on a movie during a certain time period, you’ll see her name in the credits.

  7. The Other Patrick says

    Scarlett: I think that’s something that’s specifically from Brad Bird. In a way, it’s there in Iron Giant, though in a very affirmative way – you can overcome your built-in program –, but it’s still about what makes someone special or “a hero”. Then Incredibles, which could also be a dig at schools who feel they need to give everyone a medal, even if it’s just for showing up. And last (for now) is, again, Ratatouille, where anyone can be special, but not everyone is.

  8. Robin says

    Slightly off topic, but I’m reminded of Edna every time I watch NCIS: LA. Linda Hunt’s portrayal of Hetty is fantastically off-kilter from what you’d expect in the head of a federal law enforcement office, but she carries such presence that her being in charge of that odd little group just makes sense. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Edna were modeled on Ms. Hunt.

    I do love the fact that Pixar is starting to subvert Disney’s evil/dead mother paradigm. Now if they could just make an Incredibles sequel focusing on Elastigirl and/or Violet. It’d be great to see Helen (and Bob, for that matter) continuing to mentor their kids as they grow into their superpowers.

  9. Lamprey says

    That’s not quite how I interpreted the line in context. Syndrome isn’t saying he wants everyone to get a gold star just for showing up. He wants normals to have a crack at being superheroes for once. Mainly because he thinks it would hurt real superheroes, but a different director could easily have shown him as more misguided idealist than cackling villain. But Syndrome’s evil because he won’t accept that some people are just born superior and guys like him are born losers.

    That’s the message I got from the movie, anyway, which I think also fits with the Ratatouille quote. Gusteau surely never intended Anyone Can Cook to mean “Everyone can be a four star chef”, rather “Everyone can learn to cook a decent meal”. But the idea of ordinary people stretching themselves and doing better gets no play in the movie. Linguini doesn’t learn anything from Remy except that he’s not good enough to be a chef. Unless you’re naturally brilliant, you’re nothing.

  10. says

    but Syndrome’s evil because he won’t accept that some people are just born superior and guys like him are born losers.

    Right, but I think this is where the “moral” of the piece is a little garbled. Even though Buddy/Syndrome doesn’t have super powers, he’s clearly not just another loser.

    And in the end, Mr. Incredible essentially renounces his “I work alone” ethos. Defeating the omnidroid was very much a team effort, in which all of the team members (of varying abilities) were instrumental.

    As far as the movie’s moral is concerned, I think this film is very much like Cars (see here): on the surface the film appears to be making a point, but in reality, it isn’t.

  11. Lamprey says

    Thanks for the link! Great review of Happy Feet, btw. I love that movie for all the reasons you mentioned.

    I’m having a brainfart: did you mean TI isn’t trying to say anything? Because what got under my skin seemed like a pretty consistent theme of special people who can and should get to use their powers against normals. (Caveat, I haven’t seen TI since it came out so my recollection may be off.) Bob punches his elderly boss: hero moment. Dash torments his teacher, Helen punches Mirage: comedy. Dash wins against normal kids: happy end. As you say, Syndrome isn’t a loser by ordinary standards. He’s like ten times smarter than Bob. But he’s an ugly geek in a movie where jocks win.

  12. says

    Lamprey — those are all excellent points. Let me just explain my perspective:

    I feel like the movie showed that one can be exceptional in lots of different ways. Syndrome and Edna Mode were both geeky and unattractive and yet they were both brilliant and exceptional. So, to me, it’s not that it was saying “there are winners and there are losers” so much as it was saying “people can be exceptional in different ways.”

    I agree with the moral that we shouldn’t celebrate mediocrity. But this isn’t exactly a slam on the traditional losers. It seems more like a call to recognize that there isn’t a binary in/out or super/loser spectrum (but rather a variety of ways to excel), and even someone who seems like a loser in some ways, may not be…

  13. says

    Cosign @ Lamprey & chanson– I remember watching the movie for the first time and being really confused as to why Syndrome was a villain. I got the whole hero-worship-warped-into-obsession thing, and that mass-murdering superheroes is wrong, etc. etc. However, the root message of his mania, with the sale of superpowers and all, only seemed wrong to me because of war and monopolizing the superpower market. And his selfishness, but that’s not really EVIL.

    The whole “commodification of excellence is bad” message was done much more effectively in Ratatouille, imho. It really grasped the way working at skills (vs. being handed whatever natural talent may or may not be there and settling for your own personal “mediocrity”) is a labor of love, and that anyone can really do/be anything with the right teacher, creative thinking, hard work, etc. etc.

    Besides that and the potential for the mishandling of Edna Mode (WHO IS TOTALLY EDITH HEAD!), those were my only issues with the movie; I really appreciated the message I took from The Incredibles, which was not to compromise and stifle yourself by trying to force yourself to be normal (vs. neccesarily passing for normal a la Dash’s deliberate win/loss in the school race, but they are superheroes and have to hide their non-normalcy…). Because we’re all special snowflakes. Some of us are just superpowered special snowflakes. Also the soundtrack is kickin’.

  14. Lamprey says

    Hmm, okay, that makes a lot of sense. I hadn’t considered that EM is the light side’s version of Syndrome in the sense of a non-super who still manages to kick major ass.

    Incidentally, total agreement that the women are terrific. For my money the movie would be vastly improved if they’d cut out all the main male characters, except maybe Syndrome, and made Elastigirl the hero.

    I’ll stop spamming your blog now. :)

  15. says

    nijireiki — That’s interesting. I felt like Ratatouille had a more consistent (and binary) message of “some have got it and some don’t” than The Incredibles.

    One of the most interesting scenes in Ratatouille was when Remy was trying to explain taste to his brother, and the subtleties of the different flavors were represented by music (which Remy could hear and his brother just couldn’t). Whereas, in The Incredibles it seemed like there was less of a fixed dividing line between cool and not cool. (You can see from the cape sequence that being “super” doesn’t make one automatically amazing.)

    Since they’re both by the same director, though, each one affects how you view the themes of the other.

  16. Genevieve says

    Sorry I’m late to this…

    On Ratatouille–I think there was some of the “some got it, some don’t” message going on, but on the other hand, I think the character Collette made it clear that she gained her proficiency with cooking from years of hard work, rather than her natural specialness. Also, while Remy’s brother and the other rats might not have his talent, they all did assist in the preparation of the final meal. So I’m not sure if there’s necessarily that fine line being drawn.

  17. Tristan J says

    I’m coming in totally late here, but I’m told the reason Brad Bird played Edna Mode was because he was showing an actress the kind of voice he was after, and she responded with something along the lines of, “Why are you getting me to do this when you’ve pretty much got it?”

  18. says

    Really late to the discussion, but something bothered me about Syndrome until I realized that he was actually quite wrong – he *was* a super. Take a look at what he accomplished as an eight year old, and then what he’d invented – all on his own – later in his adult life. He was super intelligent.

    Unfortunately, he was also a sociopath and thoroughly corrupt by the time he was trying to become a sidekick. He could not believe the supers in the world were not in it for the same things he was – namely, ego boost, fame and fortune – because he, like most sociopaths, thought everyone else was faking it when they talked about ‘doing the right thing’.

    Then, of course, he used his super power to put himself into a very unique position – that of a serial killer whose prey was other supers. His ‘lack of powers’ and ‘revenge’ motivation was an act – his justification for doing so many, many heinous things even though normal folks would have gotten over it long ago. It didn’t wash as a motivation for the character, but the character still worked because what he really was, while never mentioned in the movie, was followed quite carefully.

    I commend the writers for slipping that one in. Quite an effort.

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