Brad Bird

Favourite Films on Friday: #07, The Incredibles

Here were are again: ‘Alex loves Pixar films’. It’s well-trodden ground at this point, yes, I’m predictable, I know, I’m sorry. But the beauty of the studio’s best – Ratatouille, Wall.E, Monsters Inc – is that they’re very different films, and The Incredibles is possibly the best example of that. Being obvious: it was the first Pixar film to thrust human characters into the spotlight, rather than featuring animals/toys/monsters/beautifully-animated-inanimate-objects. Which is probably as much to do with technology as anything else – look at Andy and Sid in the first Toy Story, and compare them with the Parrs here. But that’s not important, because the legacy The Incredibles is best examined alongside isn’t that of Pixar; it’s superhero films, And this is, by a very long way (by at least 43 spots, I guess) my favourite superhero film. There’s just so much it gets right about ‘supers’, as the film calls them, on screen. First of all, those powers. It cherry-picks the very best – using, more or less, the Fantastic Four template of stretchy one, invisible one, strong punchy one, but switching out fiery one for speedy one. If you ignore flying, it’s pretty much the Platonic template for iconic super-powers. And then it shows them in such brilliant ways: with an opening action scene that shows Mr Incredible and Elasti-Girl in the field, establishing what kind of feats they’re capable of quickly and easily. But then we cut forward 15 years, and see Mr and Mrs Incredible – Bob and Helen – in a more domestic setting, where powers are implemented casually: a crushed door handle, splitting up a fight between the kids, a car lifted over the head (possibly the strongest single image of superherodom in existence, stretching all the way back to the cover of Action Comics #1) in frustration. The kids: Dash (speedster) and Violet (invisi-force-fielder). Their powers are teased in this setting, and only unleashed in the final third of the film. It’s a family film in all senses. The super-powered setting just exaggerate a more mundane reality. Bob’s secret crime-fighting trips are a mid-life crisis played out on a bigger scale; something that’s never more obvious than in Helen’s quiet fears that he’s having an affair.But it’s designed to play to the whole family too. So it’s bright and it goes pow! in all the right places. Action is pretty much constant, woven seamlessly in amongst jokes playing to both ends of the familial spectrum. Most importantly, it’s got that indefinable Disney quality, of pure sweetness. No film makes me smile more, so consistently brings a big goofy smile to my face. The ridiculous design of the throwaway characters – Bob’s boss Mr. Huph; Edna Mode, fashion designer to the super-able. The beauty of the volcano lair setting. Just the way the superheroes move: take the setpiece where Mrs Incredible gets her extended limbs stuck in a series of automatic doors as she tries to take out a load of henchmen; it’s a silly, funny extrapolation of her Elasti-powers, but it’s genuinely thrilling too, and when she takes the bad guys down, it’s easily as cool as the greatest feat of strength Mr Incredible is able to summon. Most of all, though, it’s the relationships between the family members. It’s touching is what it is. This is a film, though, that understands that to have that Disney sweetness, to have it ring true without turning to cloying saccharine, you need danger, threat; grown up things. And so that mid-life crisis writ large is a threat to the marriage, to the stabilising centre of the family. It’s a truism that cartoonier characters are easier to relate to, more universal, and that would explain how easily it attaches you to these characters. And this is where we come back to the Pixar legacy. That moment that catches in your throat, a bittersweet trademark. Here, for me, it’s the scene where Mr Incredible thinks he’s lost his family, that the supervillain has killed them. It’s not even a fake-out; the viewer knows they’re fine, but still… It gets me choked up every time. (For me, as I suspect for many people, family and Disney/Pixar films are inseparable. That Christmas of drunkenly tearing up on the sofa to Finding Nemo; cinema trips… my sister even reads the odd thing I write if it’s about animation.) And then it builds on top of that, finds every permutation of cinematic cake it can think and simultaenously both has and eats it. The James Bond set design and smooth cool of Mr Incredible’s secret life, against the comedy of his out-of-shape chubbiness as he gets stuck in a pod launcher. He can be the butt of a joke without detracting from his iconic hero moments. Big action setpieces with the kind of spectacle that wouldn’t be possible in live action without being plastered in ugly CG, but with the intimacy and investment I celebrated in Die Hard. It’s as prismatic as any modern superhero comic. This means it gets a bit muddled if you look too deeply at what it’s saying. Is it wrong for Bob to shirk responsibility for cheap thrills and temptations (he’s punished, his family are put in danger) or is he realising his true potential (it brings the family together, as a team)? Which brings us sort of neatly to the elephant in the room. What Christian “Solario” Otholm refers to as “an appalling moral to put in a children’s film”. The idea that no-one should try to go beyond the limits they were born with. The villains (Bomb Voyage, Syndrome, Underminer) are all powered by technology. There’s a moment where Mrs Incredible tells Violet that heroism is “in her blood”, and looked at through this filter it’s wince-inducing. I spent much of my planning time for this article trying to work out a counter-argument. And I can’t. It’s a completely fair reading of the film. Such are the dangers of being such an all-inclusive film […]

Favourite Films on Fridays: #28, Ratatouille

Okay, a rare bit of cheating here at Alex-Spencer.co.uk today. Today is Ratatouille‘s turn at FFoF, and I wrote a piece on it just over a year ago. I’ve not got much more to say, and I was quite pleased with it, so here’s a slightly edited version of that: In many ways, Ratatouille is the black sheep of the Pixar family. Produced, along with Cars, in that period when Pixar had broken away from Disney and were searching for a new identity, it often gets lumped in with that film’s confused aims and mixed success. It’s not the clear classic of Toy Story or Finding Nemo, nor the adult breakthrough of Wall-E or Up. Fittingly, what Ratatouille is, is misunderstood. Even in my own memory – having come out of the cinema, raving about how it was a bold statement on the situation of the artist – the film was difficult, even boring. My lofty claims were shot down, not unsurprisingly, as nonsense. Look at the funny English student, they laughed. Watch his silly dance. And perhaps the dance remains silly. But, watching it again, Ratatouille says everything to me. It is a manifesto on originality, what should matter (and what, in reality, does matter) in Great Art. I’ll break this down…. Remy – the film’s hero, the plucky, sellable-to-the-kids rat – is an artist. His art, for the purposes of the film, is cookery. It is clear from the beginning that this passion goes far beyond your everyday omnomnom, and to the fervour of an auteur. He is visited by visions of his hero, the chef Gusteau, and risks his life to pursue this passion. Yet, he remains tied down by his roots. Remy is of course a rat: the natural enemy of the cooking industry. Though he looks to the stars, Remy is unarguably of the gutter. I couldn’t help but see an undertone of class to his position- all the talk of snobbery and ‘us vs them’ has the ring of working class rhetoric. You could read in multiple other ways, but that’s the one that – significantly, perhaps – stood out to me. Though, as Remy’s hero proclaims throughout: “anyone can cook”, regardless of who they are. But Remy’s family don’t understand. Their ambitions focused purely on survival, Remy’s interests are surplus. The humans, the class he (pretentiously, you might say) aspires to, repress him. Early on, by shooting a shotgun at him. So Remy ends up in Paris, gay ol’ Paree, in the company of multiple humans. What they represent is where the film starts to get interesting, and complex.Our secondary hero, the gangly ginger human Linguini, is just a proxy for Remy’s ability. For the purposes of the film’s metaphor, he is just another part of the artist: the physicality, the real life, struggling to juggle multiple demands and stresses. The resemblance between him and Remy is not coincidental. In the middle is Skinner, the villain of the piece. He embraces genre, sticking rigidly to convention. The cooks working under him are told to create nothing new, only to stick to Gusteau’s successful recipes. It is for this that Anton Ego, secondary villain and Will Self lookalike, condemns the restaurant as “tourist fare.” Ego vs. Remy is the film’s great success. Ego is the critic who has lost his passion for what he criticises, Remy the untrained but talented outsider. Ego is, as Linguini oh-so-tactfully points out, “thin for someone who likes food.” There is a parallel with Remy here- earlier on, his family accused him of looking thin. Why, they ask. Not enough food? Or too much snobbery?The moment of Ego’s rediscovery is glorious. It snaps back to his childhood, revealing the critic’s roots as a working-class farmhouse type himself, triggered by the titular ratatouille: “a peasant’s dish”. The colour shoots back into him, and we see a return to passion: later on, he dons a beret (always a handy piece of short-hand), moving back from critic to artist. All thanks to the work of an outsider, who is finally outed. And, of course the world can’t take the revelation that this is a kitchen run by rats. After all, there is always a backlash against the pretentious intruder… Ahahaha. Maybe I am putting too much thought into this. Maybe it is a kids’ film, plain and simple, untainted by the thoughts and experiences of its writer/director. Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions: I’m Remy, all passion and no consideration. I haven’t even talked about the visual poetry of the tasting sessions, the lump the ending left in my throat, how much I identified with… well, everyone. Maybe I have pretensions above my station. Good. At least I’m not the embittered critic. I’m a few years away from becoming pure, emaciated Ego. …A full year closer than when I originally wrote this, though.

Favourite Films on Friday: #40, The Iron Giant

The 1950s are the perfect setting for sci-fi, somehow. That Golden Age of the American suburb makes the ideal backdrop for an alien invasion. The only decade that can compare are the 80s: its Silver Age. (But by then, these stories had mostly transferred to straight horror films, the ghost of a new era taking over haunting duties.) The Iron Giant understands this completely, and squeezes every last drop out of its setting. That 50s America mix of optimism and paranoia, as USA’s then-molten identity settled into what we Brits understand it to be now. It’s a film which knows the metaphors behind all the alien invasions, pushing headlines about Russian satellites, Red Menace comics and school filmreels of nuclear apocalypses casually into the foreground. It’s deeply cine-literate, the very first scene taking that questionable opening from The Thing, and making it cartoonishly, trascendentally beautiful in a way that an 80s live action budget would never allow. It takes in a lot of other films that I’ve never seen but have experienced equally second-hand elsewhere: The Day The Earth Stood Still; Invaders from Mars… The world that the Giant enters is one already deeply familiar with cheap B-movie science fiction, and so our boy Hogarth Hughes accepts him without question. The squares, however, are an entirely different story. ET had its federal alien-nappers, but that was the 80s. The 50s is the natural home of the behatted, besuited career man with a sinister agenda. The Iron Giant incorporates the full spectrum, between beatnik Dean McCoppin and government agent Kent Mansley. For anyone with a basic knowledge of genre, it’s no surprise who we’re going to end up siding with. But that doesn’t make the way the film incorporates all the myth around the era’s government, and especially its more secret services any less satisfying. But that doesn’t fully account for the film’s appeal. Nor does the fact (yes, fact) that it features Jennifer Anniston’s best-ever screen performance, or Vin Diesel’s. The Iron Giant is Brad Bird taking his first step from the blessed halls of early Simpsons and into film, and making something beautiful in an old-fashioned way while incorporating modern technology. That applies to the visuals, but it’s equally true of the solid storytelling, values and genuinely touching sentiment of the film too. It brings old and new together beautifully, to make a film that isn’t just a good kids’ sci-fi film, but a good sci-fi film. (And a good kids’ film, and just a plain damn’ good film.) It came out the day before my 11th birthday, and I wish I’d seen it then. It probably would have made for a better me. But seeing it a year ago, it managed to get through to that inner child, while also catching on things that had developed since. I imagine I’ll use it the same way throughout my life, finding new facets to admire. If nothing else, it would be the perfect way to introduce a child to what is – in an opinion that seems to be my inheritance – American’s most fascinating period of history.