Why I almost cried during "The Incredibles"

Island approach. India Golf niner-niner checking in. VFR on top. Over.

[radio static]

Island tower, this is India Golf niner-niner requesting vectors to the initial. Over.

[radio static]
Crying during films isn't really my thing. I hate it when Hollywood hacks write soppy lines that they think will cause the audience to laugh or cry simply because of the lighting, the frosted screen and the manipulative music.

Once I saw the stage production of The Beauty and the Beast in Sydney. It was terrible, It didn't stop the chick sitting next to me from crying though (Note: It was stranger, not my wife.)

But how could The Incredibles get me going? Well... almost going? (sounds of masculine bravado)

The film is hard to categorise. It is rated PG for obvious reasons, but appeals to the whole family. It is a parody of the whole Superhero genre that has its roots in American popular comics. We all know who Superman, Spiderman, Batman and Aquaman are for this reason.

And, like many super-animated films coming out of Hollywood (specifically Pixar and Dreamworks), the films are gaining a repuation for appealing both to the masses and to the sophisticated critics. One only has to examine Shrek to see how true this is.

So The Incredibles is a delight because it appeals to my "sophisticated" nature. So why the man tears?

I enjoy it when fiction is able to transcend itself and, through its medium, touch reality in a meaningful way. I'm not talking here about spaceships travelling silently through the vaccum of space or some "realistic" depiction of some historical event (eg Gladiator, which is an entirely fictional story set in a real time period starring representations of historical figures), but something that is able to ignore the natural limitations of its genre, its style and its assumed audience and tweak a person's emotions.

The quote I have given above is from my favourite part of the film. Helen Parr (aka Elastigirl) is on her way in a Learjet towards the island to find her husband, Bob Parr (aka Mr Incredible), who, unbeknownst to her, has been imprisoned by a supervillain named Syndrome. Also unknown to her is that two of her children, Dash and Violet, are on the plane hiding from her.

What is important is the simple fact that Helen is speaking in Pilotese, the official language that pilots and Air Traffic Controllers use when communicating. This may seem incidental, but what it does is ground the scene in the real. Helen does not fit into what films have portayed pilots to be, but shows her as a real pilot, able to speak and fly as a professional. While she is doing this, the camera ever-so-slightly moves up and down, giving the "vibe" of a plane in flight.

While this is going on, we move between the plane and Syndrome's HQ, where they are aware of the Plane's approach. Being the typical supervillain, Syndrome decides to eliminate the problem, and presses an ominous red button.

On the plane, Helen discovers her children are on board. Annoyed at their disobedience and horrified that their baby at home being cared for by a young and inexperienced baby sitter, the film returns to a more domestic feel. Helen, the mother, doing all the normal things a mum would do.

Then the beeping starts. Helen immediately recognises it as a warning signal. Missiles (launched by Syndrome) are quickly homing in on the Learjet. She rushes to the cockpit, takes control of the plane and puts the headphones on

India Golf niner-niner transmitting in the blind guard. Disengage! Repeat, disengage!

Disengage! Repeat, disengage! Friendlies...

Conflict and Juxtaposition. Maternity and Military. The caring and annoyed mother is now frantically trying to save herself and her family. She doesn't resort to emotional outbursts over the radio, she uses official pilotese. The effect is unnerving. We see the missiles bearing down on the Learjet as Helen frantically releases Chaff and Flares to misdirect them. Her expertise as a pilot is unquestioned, but her fear is very, very real.

Mayday, mayday! India Golf niner-niner is buddy-spiked! Abort! Abort! There are children aboard, say again, there are children aboard!

A "Buddy Spike" is when a friendly aircraft is about to be destroyed by a "Friendly Fire" incident. Despite her calls for abort, and the successful evasion of two of the missiles, it is obvious that she does not have the ability to escape the remaining attack. As the missiles are about to hit, she rushes into the passenger compartment and envelops her two children in a protective elastic ball (being Elastigirl, she can do this).

At this point, we expect the impossible to happen. We expect the plane to miraculously survive due to some Deus Ex Machina. That's what happens in these films isn't it? Not this one.

The plane explodes, with fire and pieces of fuselage flying through the air. Helen's elastic ball unravels as she and her two children, screaming in fear, plummet through the air. She has been knocked out cold, but regains conciousness quickly. Noticing her two screaming children, she extends her elastic arms, grabs them and draws them in to her. She then forms herself into a parachute, giving the audience a light-hearted moment during this harrowing sequence. They land hard into the ocean.

But they are not out of trouble yet. Her two children are stammering with fear and she does her best to be the authoritative mother to try to calm them down and to stop panicking. Then she screams for them to look out.

A large piece of the Learjet fuselage crashes into the ocean next to them, almost taking them down to the depths. As we resurface, we notice the largeness of the ocean waves in the foreground (totally unlike the nice flat ocean surfaces we expect in films), while in the background, firey pieces of Learjet are falling into the water. They are stuck floating in the South Pacific Ocean. Helen looks up into the sky and notices the vapour trails of the missiles that destroyed her plane.

Those were short-range missiles. Land-based. That way is our best bet.

Helen decides to head for wherever the missiles came from, following their vapour trails in the sky. Again the writers conjure up a light hearted moment to relieve us of the tension. Helen/Elastigirl forms herself into the shape of a boat while her son, Dash, whose super-power is incredible speed, splashes his legs and acts as the boat's engine while Violet sits in the boat's interior. As darkness falls, they reach the shore. Helen and Dash collapse on the sand, exhausted.

(To Dash) What a trooper. I'm so proud of you.

Thanks, mom.
The Mother and her two children reach a cave where they start a fire to keep them warm. Eventually Helen tells her children that their Father is in deep trouble, and she is going out to find him. Knowing that she is leaving her children alone and vulnerable, she gives them permission to use their super powers if any bad guys come along. In order to accentuate her point, she says the following to her two children:

Remember the bad guys on those shows you used to watch on Saturday mornings? Well, these guys are not like those guys. They won't exercise restraint because you're children. They will kill you if they get the chance. Do not give them that chance.

So here we have a cartoon mother telling her cartoon children that the baddies in Saturday morning cartoon shows are not like the real baddies at all. It's ironic, but it works. It's this moment that causes my choking - that this mother is telling her kids the plain truth. She is hiding nothing from them. We have already experienced how evil the bad guys are because we've been with them as their plane gets shot down. A mother and her two children are nearly killed before our very eyes in a film that some would dismiss as being "for kids". This is not cartoon violence - this hits us all where it hurts. We are protective of our loved ones and we know instinctively that real violence and real evil are not as simple or as predictable as that portrayed in films and TV shows. We use TV to sometimes to escape from this reality and enter a world where the good guys and the bad guys are easily dealt with and simple to handle. And yet here we are in a film that takes advantage of the whole unrealistic and fantastic genre of the superhero, mixes it with a computer generated animation style that removes us even further from the reality of the world we live in, and then BAM! we are forced to face the realities of true evil and suffering and death and its impact upon those we love.

And all this succeds despite the our obvious knowledge that these characters are fictional, and that everything works out alright in the end just like any normal Hollywood family film.

One of the greatest ironies of the film is that it is owned by Disney. Disney, in my opinion, has produced some of the most contemptible pieces of tripe that pass as family entertainment. It's not so much the stories as it is the images and the values that they present that are so damaging. Pretty princesses, handsome princes, ugly bad guys, cute comic-relief, happy endings - none of it engages the mind or promotes critical thinking. None of it allows the viewers to question the world that they are a part of. In many ways Disney is part of that hegemony that keeps us ignorant and stupid.

Sadly, there will probably be no Incredibles 2. Pixar and Disney have gone their separate ways, mainly because of Disney's abuse of its legal contract with Pixar. Pixar cannot legally make another Incredibles film, despite having the creative genius to make it into reality. If Disney do it on their own they will no doubt ruin the characters and produce yet another piece of tripe. Let's hope that incoming Disney CEO Robert Iger doesn't make that mistake.

From the Plan 9 from OSO Space Department

© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License.


Andrew Crusoe said...

I don't normally comment on 3-year-old blog posts, but I thought I'd share my thoughts. I appreciate your analysis of The Incredibles. I'm a huge fan of the movie, and I agree that it was more genuine in feeling that many live action movies. Excellent analysis on the subject, by the way.

Oh, and it looks like Iger didn't make the same mistake after all.

Icepick said...

This is my favourite scene too, but you did a good job of elaborating the reason.

Unknown said...

Great review! Just reading the scene descriptions gave me goosebumps. I'm so glad The Incredibles wasn't created for a dull audience. Like you said, it really hit home to how things are. Work, family, evil and good. Kudos to Brad Bird and the Pixar team.

Garafraxa said...

I'm a controller in Toronto, Ontario.

I also find that scene incredibly emotional. Somehow, Helen's textbook phraseology, combined with her concern for her children and her coolness under pressure add up to a sucker-punch of emotions for me. Gets me every time. Powerful film-making.

daniel bloodstone said...

i felt like crying too!

daniel bloodstone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Neely said...

Again, commenting on such an old post is out of character, but I commend you on your description of the film. Good films are entertaining on the surface. Great films have multiple layers, each entertaining and intertwining. This is such a film.

J. Neil Schulman said...

I paused my nth viewing of The Incredibles to Google "buddy spiked" and it led me to this wonderful analysis of why this movie, ostensibly a cartoon, is more emotionally real than most live action films. And more intelligent. And heroic. And everything I want a movie to be. Animation when taken as a serious art form can equal anything. Up in the Air and the Valse Triste sequence from Allegro Non Troppo being another.

J. Neil Schulman said...

Wow. I meant Up, not Up in the Air -- although I like that movie, too.

JimiSlew said...

I'm going to keep the old blog commenting going.

This was my favorite scene in the film and you are not alone in the tears department.

Also, welcome to 2016 where Incredibles II is now a thing.

Unknown said...

Yup, cried. Incredible scene in all respects. Hope 2 lives up to it.

Pointy Sticks said...

Necro post to be sure, but I loved the Incredibles and still do. Never say never, as there is a new Incredibles in the offing and due out in 2018 :) \o/

Tex Arcana said...


1) What helps make The Incredibles so good, besides the genius mix of '50/'60s-era architecture and design (Bob's little car is awesome; and the house is a GORGEOUS tribute to Frank Lloyd Wright design), is the work done to help the "suspension of disbelief", so important for ANY film or show. Making little details like hair movement realistic, or proper physics involved in falls or jumps, or facial expressions, can make or break anything, especially an animation. And The Incredibles does that, in spades.

Then there's the music: straight out of '60s spy movies and shows. Perfectly composed for the scene involved, and so well done that it becomes part of the background and helps influence our emotional reactions to the actions on the screen. That, however, is what makes Pixar so great (you cried in this movie, as did I;but what got me was Cars. That hit the essence of what it means to be a car/racing nut, that I bawled any number of times during that movie).

Now,number 2) Incredibles2 is coming:
And Pixar is doing the movie, with nearly all the original cast coming back, and Disney distributing the movie. Given Pixar's track record of excellence, there's no reason to expect anything less than a great movie.

Unknown said...

God please bless John Lasiter. Anything with his name activates my alergies.

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Unknown said...

Great post, thank you. And guess what? There's an Incredibles 2 after all!

Unknown said...

Incredibles 2, breaking box office records opening weekend. There was definitely some pent up demand.

PFC Hudson said...

"Sadly, there will probably be no Incredibles 2"

Egg... Face...

Sarah said...

Also commenting on this old post but as a mother this scene is my favorite too. The tension is visceral which is definitely aided by Helen's authenticity. I don't know if anyone has said it and I missed it but Holly Hunter (Helen) is a real life accomplished pilot. She sounds legit because she is legit. The scene is the most genuine display of panicked emotion I've seen in nearly any movie. Brilliant scene. Brilliant movies.