It is telling that Pixar’s least-discussed movies, A Bug’s Life and Cars, are the only two in its oeuvre completely divested of the presence of humans. Or, to be precise, bug species and car models provide visually striking designs for otherwise totally human personalities in these two movies: a typical strategy of American animation to enliven its stories. At its most distinctive, though, Pixar is a stalwart champion of the pathetic fallacy, centering its narratives on anthropomorphized “others” whose gains we take for granted (toys, supermen, ornamental fish, rubbish compactors) or whom we treat with disdain (rats, old grumps, bedside monsters). The studio’s preferred medium of CGI is the ideal conduit for this reversed perspective: more uncanny and spatial than yet traditional 2D, brighter and more fantastical than live-action—as though we’re seeing our world heightened in another’s eyes. By aligning our empathies with its protagonists against the onscreen humans who mistreat them, Pixar’s narratives stoke a wondrously complicated guilt rarely seen in other family films—and nowhere have they demonstrated this better than with Toy Story 2 and The Incredibles.
Toy Story 2 stands alone in its status as an animated sequel—a label whose history is rife with profiteering and artistic bankruptcy—by being needlessly, absurdly good. It’s hard to realize that the movie was once relegated for direct-to-video release when one observes how cannily the final feature is put together, as its own movie and as a follow-up to its groundbreaking predecessor. Buzz Lightyear’s exhilarating flight through outer space doesn’t just provide a kinetic, adrenaline-pumping opener for Toy Story 2, it also throws a curveball to Pixar fans with its obvious discontinuity from the “realism” of Toy Story. Sure, at the end of this sequence, we’re reassured that Toy Story 2 hasn’t completely abandoned the thrust of what made the first movie such a poignant keeper (and no, it’s not just “all a dream”). But we’re also primed for a sequel that doesn’t look to its predecessor as an excuse or crutch to limit the adventurousness of its narrative, but as a springboard for its own wild, unfettered marvels.
Now that Buzz no longer thinks he is an actual space ranger, a delusion that drove his narrative arc in the first movie, Toy Story 2 jettisons any existential crises related with “not being real”. The movie thus frees itself to more fully develop the most powerful theme in the series’s arsenal: the much “realer” fear of being left behind.
It’s a fear that we can all identify with, but it’s a plight that is especially inherent to being a toy, making the generic title Toy Story such an apt one. If the first Toy Story falters, then, it is that it confines most of our empathy to the character of Woody, a cocky cowboy doll whose place as his owner’s favorite toy is usurped by Buzz. When it isn’t Woody’s jealousy at Buzz that’s propelling the narrative, it’s his desperation to alleviate his fellow toys’ mistrust. Or his fear that he may never find his way home. Or his terror at a sadistic kid’s idea of fun. The movie keeps itself in Woody’s orbit at the expense of everyone else, though to be fair, Tom Hanks’ affable voice and the immediacy of Woody’s situation conspire to make him seem less dangerously self-centered than he is. Nonetheless, we have all the more to celebrate that Toy Story 2 breaks free from its predecessor’s containing gesture, extending the stakes of abandonment to include a generous number of other toys.
Ironically, we’re alerted that Woody has grown up only after his owner Andy swiftly abandons him to a dusty shelf before leaving for camp, reigniting his former fears. After a hilariously surreal nightmare, Woody wakes up (quite literally) to the notion that his fate is nowhere as jeopardized as those of the toys who don’t share his owner’s favor.
Even in Andy’s absence, his mom pointedly doesn’t add Woody to her pickings for a junkyard sale (a scrawled “25¢” is the sly, insulting detail in this scene), but in an unforeseen act of gallantry, Woody initiates a rescue mission for the toys that she has. This quickly goes awry, leaving Woody stranded a long way from home once more. Unlike the first movie, though, his story from there doesn’t boil down to a simple “Get back to Andy!” motive, coupled with diverting obstacles along the way. Not that Toy Story 2 abandons the pleasures of such a narrative: It twines in a parallel action plot requiring Woody’s peers to navigate the harsh territory of a toy megastore, a capitalist satire populated with ever-smiling Barbies, still-deluded Buzz Lightyears, and the treachery of gaming guides and automatic doors.
But the major plot of Toy Story 2 turns on an empathic dilemma, not on physical shenanigans. When Woody finds himself with a trio of spin-off toys from his merchandised TV series, he is saddled with deciding the fate of a community to which he never knew he belonged. What continually amazes me is how deeply the stakes change—from being usurped to being forgotten entirely, and then into a choice between ephemeral bliss or a lifetime of compromised happiness—even as Woody remains in the same room throughout.
For all its visual wonders, Toy Story 2 hinges ultimately on its rhetorical power, in two heartbreaking songs (the nostalgic elegies “When She Loved Me” and “You’ve Got A Friend in Me”) and in the specific histories evoked by Buzz, to events of the previous movie; and by these new characters, to their own identifiable offscreen troubles. Given that each side has a point, Woody’s eventual decision is deeply satisfying, which is why the curt end he deals to one antagonist may come off as more puerile than it deserves to be—a notable lapse in the movie’s otherwise gratifying maturity.
Narrative ingenuity aside, Toy Story 2 sparks to its own immaculate construction, boasting some of the most jocular, attention-calling scene transitions this side of Citizen Kane: an American flag billowing behind a stump-speechmaker, an offhand order to “use your head!”, etc.
The movie operates on the kind of delirious logic where a minefield of Cheetos looms wider than a four-lane street in busy traffic; where drivers swerve to obey traffic cones; where a plane lands on a runway after the last one barely left it; or where, in more targeted allusions, characters are disarmed swiftly by parental revelations (Star Wars) or camera flashes (Rear Window). Screw Tarantino or Dante! Here, John Lasseter presents us movie-moviedom at its finest, in which our heroes are powered by the forces of entertainment, and the laws by which their universe runs are not only informed, but dictated by the movements of earlier classics. (Even when the movement is that of a gurgling belly, at its funniest here since Chaplin’s Modern Times.) And if its heaps of wit and feeling are to be any indication, Toy Story 2 can stand proudly aside these classics as one of the best that cinema has to offer.
Five years later, The Incredibles heralded the arrival of Brad Bird to Pixar, and with him, the studio’s first human protagonists. The complication is that these are superhumans, whose undeniable talent is both celebrated and envied, ultimately leading to a backlash against their public existence.
However, the unique fascination of The Incredibles lies not in its themes of a superhero’s career-juggling burdens (a path trodden that same year by Spider-Man 2), the public suspicion of abnormal beings (the domain of the X-Men films), or the malaise of talented crimefighters forced into retirement (criticised by some as “Watchmen-lite”, a nod to the heavier proceedings of Alan Moore’s influential graphic novel). Rather, The Incredibles stands out in its complex braiding of these themes into its distinctive mix of family and superheroics. As I use it here, “family” refers to the all-American nuclear family, an idiom used in The Incredibles to revitalize the tropes of both the superhero action flick and the dysfunctional family dramedy, forming the meat of this movie’s pathos and humor.
Even the superpowers dealt to each family member seems to fit the idiom: Dad is strong, Mom is flexible, the son is brash, and the daughter self-effacing. Despite my attempt to be catchy in the previous sentence, though, I find that the labels I’ve used inaccurately reduce these characters to their roles as parents and children.
For one, Bob Parr (aka Mr Incredible) can barely be said to demand the title of “Dad”, at least early on. After his feats in the movie’s prologue, we find him fifteen years later cramped—behind a desk, inside a car, within a frustratingly impotent job—and then distracted at the dinner table, where he all but ignores his family, scanning the papers for ex-superhero news before abandoning them for “bowling night”. “Mom” does suit Helen (née Elastigirl) better in the post-prologue, where we find her as a housewife, washing the baby at the sink, visiting the principal’s office, fetching the kids. But the spectre of Helen’s proto-feminist past (“Leave the saving of the world to the men? I don’t think so!”) haunts and complicates this reading considerably—and I’ll have more to say about this later. Meanwhile, the kids struggle with their own gender-ascribed troubles, with Dash frustrated that he can’t flaunt his talent at running, and Violet sneaking glances at the boy of her affections while (literally) invisible.
The Incredibles devotes a good deal of its running time hence to winking at this farce, which would serve as generic fare for a suburban drama except that this isn’t one. Really, what adds a thrill to the sibling rivalries and the couple’s arguments is precisely that we’ve seen them before, save that they’ve never before included the visual spectacle of a family entangled around a dining table or an enraged housewife’s head stretching for the ceiling. Likewise, Bob’s “bowling nights” and “business trips” are all a sham, lent new meaning because his indulgences lie in action sequences.
But what’s less observed about The Incredibles is that the reverse is also true. The tropes of the superhero movie offers a sheen of invulnerability to these characters that, at its keenest, the movie strips away by pointing out that this is a family. I’m thinking here of the moment when Helen and the kids, while on a plane, find themselves pursued by a bunch of heat-seeking missiles. We’re so caught up by the immediate thrills of this setup, with Helen executing maneuvers while the kids tumble about the swerving plane, that it’s a rude shock when Helen yells over the air: “Abort, abort, there are children aboard!” We’ve been put on by the verve of the editing, the genre’s tropes and the gloss of the animation, and so the best parts of The Incredibles are suffused with the urgency of Helen’s voice here, punching through all that surface to remind us that real human lives—and relationships—are at stake.
Among the Incredibles, then, Helen’s arc is to me the most interesting, not least because she’s the character most saddled with taking care of everyone else, while also being most at ease with hiding her own powers. In a way, she has it easy: as a housewife, she isn’t as burdened with holding her powers back in public, as Bob and Dash are behind their desks. It’s a believable subtext to me that Helen is keeping them both from any job or sport that could even use a measure of their physical prowess, since they might be prone to showing it off.
But Helen’s problem is that she is almost too adaptable, making it seem that she has compromised little even when she reduces the range of her elastic arms to the furthest reaches of the living-room carpet. Her take on post-superhero life can be contrasted with that of Edna Mode, Helen’s erstwhile costume designer. While it is implied that—like Helen—Edna is still free to use her talents in her new field, she thrills more obviously at the functionality of her craftsmanship, both in her legendary “no capes!” monologue and in her gleeful private showcase to Helen of her new costumes. Voiced by Brad Bird himself, Edna thus represents Helen’s guide into a new realm of possibilities, one in which the Incredibles can at least fully realise their own potentials, even if Edna doesn’t know what else might happen beyond that.
Just as, I might add, The Incredibles represents Pixar’s own guide into a new realm of possibilities. The movie so richly unfolds the novelistic implications of its premise that, even as it draws to a close, we’re still left with plenty of questions unanswered. Can Violet be distilled into her arc from shy waif to confident girl, and how exactly will her particular way of not “being normal” affect her romantic prospects? Surely Dash can’t be content with confusing his way through every race, but is there even to be a proper answer for him? What future does this portend for their mutual sibling, who has yet to discover his own potential? And what of side characters like the villain’s assistant, whose powers we realize we haven’t even seen?
As Nick Davis points out, the movie ends on its own tantalizing question, as threats to “declare war on peace and happiness!” are overlaid onto images of the Incredibles reclaiming their masked identity. The Incredibles, then, is the one movie out of Pixar’s oeuvre to which I most want to see a sequel, but it’s also the movie that poses its own greatest challenge to such a possibility, layering on the heights of visual and sonic pizzazz as well as newly enlivened depths of feeling. And, unfortunately, this is not a challenge that I’m sure Pixar can achieve.
For what are we to make of Pixar’s current status, another five years since its last creative peak? For me, Pixar’s four features since The Incredibles have been disappointing efforts by its stable of auteurs, each of whom handed in superior contributions during the studio’s impressive streak: Cars, widely acknowledged to be Pixar’s first dud, was nowhere in the realm of John Lasseter’s Toy Story movies; while Ratatouille, reprising Brad Bird’s theme of unappreciated talent from The Incredibles, paired it this time around with an unconvincing “Anyone Can Cook!” thesis that one character (an easily-unconvinced critic, no less!) had to apologize for in the last reel—not to forget how it loses with Colette the ground that Edna and Helen so valiantly fought for on the women’s front. And allow me this honesty, but Andrew Stanton’s WALL•E - about which more later this week - never gives its title character any real hurdles to surmount, compared to the palpable danger his protagonists feel in Finding Nemo; while Pete Docter’s Up, despite a few touching moments between its elderly hero and his late wife, never builds a convincing relationship between any of its other characters as enduring as the one in Monsters, Inc. between Sully and Boo.
It appears to me that Pixar no longer has the creative discipline to marshal its pool of admittedly wondrous elements into fully cohesive stories, whether we can attribute this to its full ownership by Disney, its unrivaled artistic freedom as a studio or its lack of new blood since Bird joined the team. Up, touted by some as its most mature movie, strikes me instead as its most infantile yet. Consider an aspect as seemingly tiny as the way it treats its dogs, which, if you’ve followed my argument about sidelined non-humans, may be the most telling detail of the quality of a Pixar movie. Is it at all hard to decide if the gleeful retriever and the pinched Doberman are meant to be anything other than “good” and “bad”, especially with the choice of species? And is the tinny squeak that the latter’s malfunctioning voice often segues into meant to elicit any emotion other than mean-spirited laughter?
As a contrast, I contend that the most hard-hitting part of Up is not the much-heralded montage showing Carl’s relationship with his wife up to her death, but a moment that comes after: When his mailbox, a memento of his late wife, is knocked over by a construction vehicle, Carl rushes to protect it from the well-meaning construction worker who steps up to fix it. In the ensuing struggle, Carl thwacks the worker on the head with his cane, and an unforeseeable thing happens: the worker starts to bleed. In my mind, there’s nothing in the movie that comes close to this moment, as poignant as the best bits of Toy Story 2 and The Incredibles, when we’re swung around to the other person’s perspective, even for just a while. If Pixar could reclaim its gift for shaping these moments consistently through a movie, in next year’s Toy Story 3, in the potential The Incredibles 2, or simply in any of its features to come, then I, for one, can’t wait to be there. But if it doesn’t, then at least it will have made two unimpeachable gems, if only to shame all the rest.
Colin Low writes at the blog Movie Epiphanies, where a version of this piece originally appeared.
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