That Question Again
Animators hear That Question far too much, and we largely have Pixar to thank. Just as Walt Disney succeeded in branding cel animation in the 1930s, to the extent that audiences worldwide still identify Disney as its quintessential (if not only) practitioner, so Pixar has endeavoured to "own" computer animation. If Pixar has accomplished this goal, it is due in large part to the films' commercial success—which has all too often come at the expense of artistic merit. For all of Pixar's innovation and experimentation in the technicalities of production, the content of the films has been rather slack. The software algorithms might be state of the art, but Pixar's characters, situations and plots too often fall back on the most shopworn Disneyesque clichés.
It's understandable. Pixar's goal all along was to develop and control the vocabulary of computer animation; that many of the films treated story and design as afterthoughts is beside the point. Hampered at first by primitive modelling and rendering technology, Pixar animators worked with simple, hard-edged, mechanical characters: unicycle, desk lamp, wind-up toy. These choices were significant, not just because their simplicity accelerated the animators' learning process (thereby stimulating the need for more powerful software tools), but also because of what they tell us of Pixar's collective self-image and its source, the social milieu from which Pixar arose. Silicon Valley in the 1980s was a dreary, culturally empty, endless suburb, nobody's idea of a magnet for artistic excellence. If many of Pixar's early characters were cheap consumer doodads and toys, objects without usefulness or "realness," it's only a reflection of the cultural blandness of the surroundings. An art form designed by computer geeks created plenty of space for its human practitioners to identify (sometimes too closely) with the machine and the machine-made object. It's hard to remember now that in its early days, Pixar had to overcome the widely-held belief that computer animation wasn't "authentic," even by the debased standards of the time (remember My Little Pony?). In a sorry repetition of animation's long struggle for recognition in the context of mainstream cinema, Pixar animators sat for too long at the children's table of animation, with nobody but their own characters for company.
Such a view leaves out the element of human agency and trivializes the accomplishments of the real people who made the film. Director Brad Bird deserves credit for avoiding the obvious and the stereotypical at every opportunity (well, almost—surely someone could have given Violet a better motivation than just wanting a boyfriend). The writing is tight and the design is seamless. The color palettes, especially the grey-green wastelands of suburbs and office cubicles, are on par with the best of Disney or Miyazaki. The tensions which animate the story—between flatness and depth, past and present, explicit and implied—are represented visually in the opening sequence, which crisply lays out the backstory in faux home-movie footage, newsreels and newspaper images. The Kennedy-era cars and interiors are to die for, and for the comic-book fan there's more: empty urban plazas recalling the bold layouts of Jack Kirby, and delightful riffs about superhero costumes, "monologuing," and the unglamorous aspects of the superhero biz which the comics left out. The silver-age Marvel characters on which The Incredibles were based (most particularly the Fantastic Four, whose big-screen debut is sure to suffer by comparison) made a virtue of their foibles, weaknesses, and adult limitations; The Incredibles honours that tradition even while it conjures a simpler, imaginary comic-book past. It's a film by and about adults that neither sentimentalizes childhood nor brushes adult disappointments under the rug.
The Incredibles also takes That Question to a new level. Tin Toy, Knick Knack, and Toy Story masked the animator's insecurity behind the glossy sheen of plastic characters, deflecting attention from the crux of the matter: are we real artists or just kids playing with shiny toys? But The Incredibles tackles it face-on. The issues at hand—developing your talents versus fitting in, inborn greatness versus technological prowess, safety versus honesty—play themselves out not only in the narrative but in the circumstances of the film's production. Syndrome reveals that he's dedicated his life to developing technologies that will erase the distinction between the super and the non-super, thus stating in a nutshell the anxiety artists feel around technology. Does the animation come out of me, or do I just release it from the machinery by pressing buttons? Isn't it all done by computers nowadays? Ultimately, The Incredibles doesn't supply an answer. Instead, it gets you thinking about the question, as art is supposed to do.
Refreshingly free of snide pop-culture allusions and winking references to the offscreen personae of the voice actors, The Incredibles just might point the way forward for an animation industry mired in self-admiration and cynical show-biz corporatism. With Pixar having demonstrated the possibility of producing a commercially successful, artistically honest animated feature without these tiresome intrusions, dare we dream that the rest of the Hollywood herd will follow suit? Technology is cool, but artistic vision, snappy writing and tight design still matter. It's no accident that Bird gives Disney veterans Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston the last word, voicing the two old men who admonish the audience to remember the "old school." Let's hope somebody was listening.