Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Incredibles -- together or alone?

How does Pixar keep on doing it, turning out winning movie after winning movie? With great stories that captivate and thrill. The Incredibles is another from this winning stable. Written and directed by Brad Bird, recently an Oscar-winner for Ratatouille (from the same studio), this was a 3-D cgi movie after his former 2-D animated movie The Iron Giant (itself a great movie).

The Incredibles is a super-hero movie where the super-heroes have become shunned and banished by the public they were helping due to a glut of lawsuits (is that a societal issue today in the US?). The supers have hung up their capes, removed their masks, and permanently taken on their alter ego identities.

At the start of the film, a young and single Bob Parr (aka Mr Incredible) is off to his wedding, when he hears of a police car chase. Doing the right thing, he dons his super-suit and rushes to the rescue. En route, he encounters Buddy, his biggest hero, who wants to work with him, as his sidekick, Incrediboy. "I work alone," says Mr Incredible, and this is a recurring theme and weakness of his. In casting Buddy aside, he puts inside him a seed of resentment that will bear bitter fruit years later, when he becomes Syndrome, his arch-nemesis.

15 year later, after the lawsuits and his wedding to Helen (aka Elastigirl), we find this super settled down in suburbia. Bob is overweight working as an insurance agent, and barely fitting into his company cubicle. Bored to tears he pines for his super-hero days when he saved the world. When given the chance to do it again, he jumps at it, though he keeps it secret from Helen and their kids, Dash and Violet.

The charm of the story is in the ironical one-liners ("you can be super wthout them [superpowers]", "aren't we all misunderstood", "you have more power than you realize", "everyone can be super, and with everyone super, no one would be", "Mom and Dad's lives are in jeopardy . . . or worse, their marriage"), and the references to other movies. From the James Bond-like orchestral score as Dash runs on water, to the Indiana Jones boulder rolling down to kill them, from the Mission Impossible "this tape will self-destruct in 5 seconds" to the cruciform-like image of Spiderman saving an L-train, Incredibles is replete with references.

Of course, the story stands and succeeds on the backs of its engaging characters.The leads, Mr Incredible (Craig T Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), are so true to life that we see ourselves in them and their situations. We can easily put ourselves into the role of Bob, trapped in the boredom of a dead-end job that does not match our strengths. We have experienced the frustration of being strectched to breaking point, like Helen, by the petty squabbles or endless activities of our children. We can remember the desire to be invisible in High School, like Violet, when wanting a date but fearing rejection. And we can picture ourselves running to victory like Dash in the championship race, if only we are given the chance. They are us, they are real, even if computer generated.

The moral premise of the movie, according to Stanley Williams, is that "battling adversity alone leads to weakness and defeat; but battling adversity as a family leads to strength and victory." Throughout the movie Mr Incredible refuses to allow others to help, to work with him, because he finds his identity and purpose in his calling. But he cannot do it alone. And when he tries he fails. But as he learns to let others help with their talents and super-powers, he grows.

In one scene, his whole family has been captured by Syndrome and are hanging helpless, chained by zero-energy bonds. He starts monologueing, and while he does, Violet uses her force-field powers to get loose and free them all. He could not do this alone.

At the initial climax, when the family arrives back in the US to save the day, Mr Incredible still wants to do it alone, because he does not want to lose Elastigirl; but he can only keep her by letting her in, letting her help, and hence risking losing her. In this pre-climax, and the final one with Jack-Jack, only working as a family of supers are they able to gain victory. Working together the family wins. And this is a film that families can watch together and enjoy together.

This false ethic of working alone, like the legendary cowboy in the old Westerns (e.g., Shane), is one we must face and fight. Whether at home, at work, or in the church, we cannot and must not do it alone. Particularly in the church, God has given each of his Christ-followers one or more spiritual gifts, Holy Spirit-empowered abilities that enable us to serve others. If we try to do it all ourselves we will not only fail and burn-out, we will deprive others of the opportunity to use their gifts. Do you know what your Spirit-given gift is? If so, are you using it to the glory of God to serve Him?

Another main issue is that of identity. Incrediboy tells us "to be true to ourselves," but who are we? Do we really know ourselves? And if we do, do we let it out, do we show others? Or do we wear masks to protect our identities? As a victim of identity theft in the past 5 years, I know first-hand the difficulty and struggles that occur when our identities are not well protected. But how do we keep a balance between letting others know who we really are while not giving away too much that can hurt us? If we protect our true identity too much, then like Bob our cubicle will become crammed and claustrophobic and people will never come to know us. Relationships are built upon openness and trust, and that demands appropriate vulnerability.

Finally, The Incredibles tackles head-on the issue of "normal" and "fitting in." Society wants the supers, and us, to simply fit into their expectations. When we do, society is satisfied, but we may feel imprisoned. There are some appropriate behavioral expectations imposed by society, such as not stealing, not killing, not slandering (sounds a lot like the Ten Commandments), but within these limits we can and should be ourselves. Normal is just a term. We are more than normal, more than average. As followers of Jesus, we are sons and daughters of a king, of the King. We are special. We fit in, but in the unique and distinct ways God has created us.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

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