There are a hundred ways to measure what makes a great movie, but nothing speaks more highly about a film than how closely you can read it. In his new feature, Deadshirt Editor-In-Chief Dylan Roth explores one of his favorite films by demonstrating just how much there is to talk about, writing at length about Every Five Minutes of runtime.
Written and Directed by Brad Bird
(c) 2004 Disney/Pixar
(05:46-10:12) A Bad Night
It’s only been a few moments since Mr. Incredible watched Elastigirl disappear into the sunset, but the mood of the film has already dramatically changed, just from the sun falling below the city skyline. The color palette of Municiberg has just shifted from bright primaries to deep blues and violets.
“Now you just stay here,” says Mr. Incredible, cuffing the purse snatcher from earlier to a rooftop pipe. “They usually pick up the garbage in an hour.” Where in his skintight Supersuit does Mr. Incredible keep his supply of handcuffs? What kind of sanitation company collects trash from rooftops? These are the kinds of questions you only think to ask when watching a movie with tweezers and a microscope. Thanks for playing.
Mr. Incredible has had a busy evening stopping crises in the city of Municiberg, and evidently there’s more than enough mayhem to go around, because seconds later a helicopter flies over his shoulder, firing machine guns, being chased by Frozone. This is Frozone’s own, unrelated adventure, just a regular occurrence in this superhero world. Frozone skates on a bridge made of ice, a la the X-Men’s Iceman. There are a handful of differences between Frozone’s ice slide and that of Iceman Bobby Drake—Frozone throws what looks like snowballs that burst into expanding ice crystals, whereas Iceman shoots an “ice beam” that becomes a smooth, glass-like riding surface—but it’s functionally the same. The effect of watching ‘Zone’s slides appear, crystalize, and then immediately collapse is a pretty interesting visual, particularly in its understated background debut here.
A quick sidebar: back in 2011, director and former Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats tweeted 22 “story basics” that she’d learned while working at the company, that together illustrate why Pixar movies work so damn well. They’re all on display here in The Incredibles, but one in particular comes to mind during this sequence:
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
Over the next three minutes, Mr. Incredible gets bounced around from one crisis immediately into the next. Is it realistic? Hell, no. But it works because its being unlikely just amplifies the character’ frustration at his own rotten luck, which makes for good comedy and keeps the story moving at a brisk pace.
Mr. Incredible tracked down the purse snatcher onto a rooftop, where he happened to run into Elastigirl, and later Frozone. Now, moments later, he notices a crisis taking place at the building across the street—a crowd of bystanders and first responders have gathered below as a man prepares to jump to his death from the top of the thirty-story office building. (How many Disney films include an attempted suicide?) Thinking quickly, Mr. Incredible takes a few step back, gets a running start, leaps off the rooftop across the intersection to catch the jumper in midair. The two of them crash through a window into the lobby of a bank…which is in the middle of being burgled.
The culprit is Silver Age-style costumed villain Bomb Voyage (voice of animator Dominique Louis), an evil mime who speaks only in subtitled French and absolutely steals this scene. Mr. Incredible and Bomb Voyage, apparently old foes, square off to do battle when they’re interrupted by Buddy/IncrediBoy, who’s flown up to the shattered window with the help of his homemade rocket boots. IncrediBoy is here to help his idol, but neither Mr. Incredible nor Bomb Voyage want anything to do with him. Buddy pulls Mr. Incredible aside while Bomb Voyage waits impatiently for their dance to start.
Here, Buddy forecasts another of the film’s overarching themes: the struggle to balance the different parts of oneself. Bob’s advice to “Be true to yourself” is stock inspirational poster fare, as it’s certainly intended to be, but Buddy, an impressionable kid, has dug too deeply into it and reinterpreted it as tacit permission from his idol to leap headfirst into the world of costumed heroism. For Bob, later on in the film, his struggle to determine “which part of [him]self to be true to” leads him to make his own foolish choices, before he’s finally able to realize the obvious truth: he has to be true to all parts of himself—husband, father, and superhero, if he’s going to be great at any of them.
Buddy pleads with Mr. Incredible to let him become his sidekick. Where his earlier antics in the light of day were purely comedic, now his insistence upon endangering himself has become a bit frightening. We’re watching a not quite stable child’s dreams get crushed, and he’s taking it poorly. Buddy attempts to pivot from the question of his youth to one of his abilities—Buddy has no natural superpowers, but he is uncommonly brilliant, which he’s proven by inventing his rocket boots. He can fly, whereas Mr. Incredible, natural born Super, cannot. Now his protests carry a degree of weight, since he’s more or less accusing Bob of a superpowered brand of ableism.
So let’s talk about life in a world where some people are born with abilities beyond those of mortal men. Imagine a society whose idols are born to be idols, and whose heights you can never reach because you’re just not that lucky. You don’t have to imagine very hard to picture such a world, because it’s only a slight exaggeration of the one in which we live. Some people are born rich. Some people are born pretty. And while there’s still some semblance of upward mobility in our society, it’s impossible to deny that some people just have it easier than others due to blind, stupid luck.
Bob Parr is strong, invulnerable, handsome, and he’s a hero. Of course he’s labored hard to earn that title (the first ten minutes of this film are dedicated to his work ethic and altruism), but if he had been a normal kid like Buddy, it’s very unlikely that he’d be where he is now. Buddy wasn’t born into that particular brand of privilege (though he likely has other advantages—rocket boot components can’t be cheap, let alone the education required to invent them), but he wants to do good like his hero, Mr. Incredible, and despite readily accepting his role as an aspirational figure, Mr. Incredible legitimately doesn’t believe that Buddy can be like him, and that’s sad.
Desperate to prove his value to Mr. Incredible, Buddy runs off to go summon the police to pick up Bomb Voyage, but before he can rocket away, the nefarious mime clips an explosive to his cape. Mr. Incredible tries to warn him, but his words are drowned out by a combination of the roaring rocket boots and Buddy’s own unwillingness to listen. Tossing Bomb Voyage aside, Bob grabs onto Buddy’s cape as he flies out of the building, grasping at the bomb that’s flapping in and out of reach on the edge of the cape.
FORESHADOWING: Capes are more trouble than they’re worth.
Buddy, still unable to hear his pleas, assumes that Mr. Incredible is deliberately spoiling his flight, and never knows what’s really going on. Mr. Incredible eventually manages to detach the bomb, and he and the bomb both fall a hundred feet down to an elevated train track. Bob lands hard, but unscathed due to his Super invulnerability. The bomb lands securely, too, but seconds later it explodes (as bombs do) and takes out a chunk of the track and the bridge supporting it. Rotten luck has plunged Mr. Incredible into yet another crisis.
Ever the stalwart hero, Mr. Incredible snaps into action, rushing to put his body between the train and the shattered bridge.
The train collides with Mr. Incredible at top speed, and we get a brief shot—not even a full second—of the passengers inside toppling over, which is a strong contender for my favorite shot in The Incredibles. It’s not that the image itself so compelling or memorable, though it’s certainly effective. It’s the fact that it exists at all. The Incredibles is a computer-animated film, so everything that appears on screen has to be built from scratch. There are no locations, there are no pre-existing sets, there are no stock costumes, there are no extras. The laws of physics themselves must be invented from the ground up. There’s a reason why there are rarely deleted scenes from computer-animated movies—every frame takes hours, days, months to create, so every beat that’s not essential to the film has to be weeded out during the writing, storyboarding, and pre-visualization phases. You simply can’t afford to invest time and money into something that’s not going to end up in the final product. Which is why I marvel at the inclusion of this:
In order to create this image of commuters being thrown about inside the elevated train as it hits Mr. Incredible, the team at Pixar had to design and construct the interior of the train, all of the people inside and what they’re wearing, and then make them move realistically as they’re propelled forward. This set is never seen again. And if this shot wasn’t in the film, the sequence would still work just fine. But this half-second shot does so much heavy lifting: it shows the people in peril, providing a set of stakes should Mr. Incredible fail to stop the train from plummeting onto the pavement; it illustrates the force impact of the train hitting Mr. Incredible, and the relative fragility of the average person; and it confirms that this event is, in fact, fairly traumatic for all involved, which is important when examining the consequences of the collision a few minutes later.
The fact that hundreds of hours of work went into this forgettable yet essential microscene is what separates Pixar from their contemporaries, and what makes The Incredibles a masterpiece.
Mr. Incredible, of course, manages to save the train and everyone inside from certain destruction, bringing his violent evening to a close. He hands over Buddy to the police, and briefs them on the events of the night and Bomb Voyage’s escape. Upon learning that Mr. Incredible let the mad mime get away, the police officers’ mood turns sour. Remember how much reverence these same two officers greeted him with earlier that same day? This is how they look at him when they learn that he’s failed them, just once, and that he can’t stick around to try and catch him; that they might actually have to do the police work themselves.
To the cops, to the public, Mr. Incredible’s only priority should be catching the bad guy. That’s what he’s there for. That’s why he gets to have special powers and be on magazine covers and cereal boxes. That’s why we all forgive him being bigger and stronger than us, why we admire him instead of resent him for the sense of inferiority he makes us all feel. We allow him to be Mr. Incredible because he belongs to us. What could be more important to him than serving us?
Bob hurries to the church in the Incredibile, transforming it back into a a plain coupe just before parking. He strolls into the church in his tuxedo but nearly forgets to take off his domino mask—wearing it is that natural for him. His best man, Lucius (obvious Frozone) chastises him for his lateness and makes sure he’s decent (that means removing the mask) before sending him down the aisle, where his bride is already waiting.
The bride is also familiar, and with good reason: it’s Elastigirl, real name Helen, and their tension-fueled dialogue picks right up here, costume or no, but tonight isn’t about being superheroes, it’s about becoming a family, and Bob has just sauntered in late to their wedding because he was out living his other life. Of course Helen understands the complicated work schedule of a costumed hero, being one herself, but that doesn’t mean Bob gets a complete pass.
And he thinks he does. But the world is about to change more than he could imagine, and Mr. Incredible is going to be the new status quo’s first casualty.