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 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
Edna Mode (42:49-46:02)
At home, Bob discovers a tear on the shoulder of his Supersuit—courtesy of Omnidroid 9000 on the Nomanisan mission. Supersuits aren’t made of the same materials as normal attire, they’re custom made for the demands of hero work, so Bob packs it into his suitcase and heads out for another day of pretending to have a job. On his way out the door is a brief moment confirming for the audience that Bob is, in fact, lying to Helen about still having a job, but also that they are getting along very well. Helen leers at Bob’s butt as he walks for the car. Some time has passed during the workout montage—along with his physical transformation, Bob has become very casual and confident in his deception. He’s clearly become a lot better at this since the Bowling Night incident, when Helen saw right through Bob’s cocky smokescreen. What an awful thing to be great at.
Bob drives his slick new car (which somewhat resembles the Incredibile from the old days) to the stylish hilltop estate of Edna Mode, the famous fashion designer who, until the Superhero Relocation Act, was the genius responsible for dressing the world’s greatest heroes in stylish, functional crime-fighting gear. Edna is diminutive by most standards, less than half of Bob’s (admittedly considerable) height, but supremely confident, a conversational bulldozer with a distinctive accent that’s a mix of German and Japanese on top of upper crust American English. Edna is in only about ten minutes of the film and completely steals every moment.
It’s shouldn’t be surprising, then, that writer/director Brad Bird chose to keep this character for himself—yes, that is his voice coming out of the half-Asian lady, and while I expected to find a great deal of criticism of this casting online, I was stunned, stunned to find not a single negative word about the portrayal online. Google, Twitter, Tumblr, they all came up clean. Certainly a white guy providing the voice to a mixed-race female character, complete with accent, would raise some eyebrows (or some hell) were this film released today, and I would fault no one for finding this offensive. I showed up for this chapter of Every Five Minutes ready to dedicate a few paragraphs to existing critical responses of this case of Hollywood whitewashing, but having failed to find any, I am certainly not the right person (spoiler alert: I’m a white man) to start the conversation. Should any readers find such scholarship, or feel like writing it themselves, I’d be interested in reading it or referencing it in a future E5M; hit me up @DylanRoth on Twitter.
There’s a great deal of speculation as to who was the primary inspiration for Edna Mode, and Bird has been characteristically tight lipped on the subject. There are two prevailing theories that are probably both true: fashion designer Edith Head, and to a greater extent (in my opinion), Academy Award-winning actress Linda Hunt, who today’s viewers may recognize as Hetty Lange on NCIS: Los Angeles.
Hunt portrayed fictional fashion designer Regina Krumm in Robert Altman’s 1994 feature Prêt-à-Porter, and has hypopituitary dwarfism, which could account for Edna’s stature. The most stunning connection is that Linda Hunt won her Oscar for her portrayal of Billy Kwan—a male, Chinese reporter—in 1982’s The Year of Living Dangerously.
It’s also been said that Brad Bird originally intended the role for beloved American comedienne Lily Tomlin, but that upon hearing Bird demonstrate the accent he imagined for the character, she suggested that he simply perform the role himself. And he obviously did a great job, as Edna Mode remains a memorable and beloved Pixar character. But I suspect that, with the impending release of The Incredibles 2 (working title) in 2019, I suspect that any return to the role will attract some scrutiny.
With that aside, let’s return to the film.
Bob and Edna travel to E’s absolutely cavernous living room, which is complete with fifty-foot sculptures of Greek gods. There are a number of beautifully designed sets in The Incredibles, but this may take the cake.
Edna laments the lost age of superheroes, and when Bob reveals his damaged Supersuit, she immediately gets the picture; Bob is being coy about it, but E immediately recognizes this as a fresh cut. She decides in moments that she’s going to design a new suit for Mr. Incredible, indulging herself after over a decade of working on comparably simple civilian couture. She, too, plays coy, transparently pretending to be too busy to do the job while obviously champing at the bit to get started. She begins designing the new Mr. Incredible right there in the living room on a plain notepad.
Like Bob, Edna hasn’t been her full self since the Supers were put out to pasture, although things seem to have gone much, much better for her, career-wise. Since she herself has no powers, Edna was not forced into hiding, and got to segue into designing for supermodels (“HAH!”), which has kept her in the lap of luxury but has done nothing to feed her spirit. Clearly, creating Supersuits is her true love, and Mr. Incredible’s illicit return is her way back home.
Which mean’s it’s time for the famous “No Capes” sequence.
Bob is brainstorming ideas for his new costume—I specify that Bob is brainstorming, because Edna has no need or interest in his input here. She’s in the zone. Bob’s single request is that his new suit have a cape, but E nixes this idea immediately, citing off the top of her head five grisly cape-related deaths of superheroes back in the late Fifties. (This is the only point in the film to specify a time period; assuming these deaths were near the end of the Super era, this would place most of The Incredibles some time in the mid 1970s.)
The “No Capes” bit is one of those jokes that is funny the first viewing and increasingly grisly the more you think about it (which led to this popular fan analysis that spread across Reddit and Tumblr last year). The real-life comic book origins of the superhero cape are that a cape is a great device for artists to show their characters in motion, but this sequence recontextualizes it as a downright dangerous affectation that superheroes would be better off without. In addition to being a very tight twenty-second gag, it also sets up the payoff for the film’s final action sequence, which is just an hour away…
Next week: Helen gets wise.