Great Moments in Cinema: The Incredibles
Rather than a great moment, I wanted to look at an incredible moment in cinema. That’s why I decided to focus on a sequence that is great not because it provides some deep insight into the themes of the film, or serves as a sort of complete story that stands on its own (though I would argue that it does both of those things to a degree), but rather, it is great because it is a thrilling action sequence that never fails to put a smile on my face. It is a sequence that occurs about halfway through one of the all-time great superhero movies, and proves that you don’t need to rely entirely on shaky cam or spastic editing to craft a fantastic action sequence. In fact, it proves just the opposite, and serves to put a lot of live-action action sequences to shame.
The Incredibles (2004) is set in a world that feels like it was ripped right out of a Silver Age comic book and dropped into the New Millennium. It is a world where superheroes (referred to as Supers) and super villains are commonplace, and the citizens have become accustomed to the way their lives are impacted on a daily basis by these larger than life costumed crazies. The most powerful here in the world is the famous and beloved Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), and we are introduced to him on the night of his marriage to the equally famous and beloved Elastigirl (Holly Hunter). Unfortunately, not long after this blissful event, normal people have decided they’ve had enough of the destructive antics of the Supers, and a bill is passed that outlaws any sort of costumed vigilantism. Mr. Incredible reluctantly settles into his forced retirement, starting a family with Elastigirl and working a dead end job at a sleazy insurance company.
However, unable to leave his old ways behind, Mr. Incredible sneaks out at night to go on patrol with his friend and fellow former Super, Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson). Then one day, Mr. Incredible receives a strange message from a mysterious organization that wants him to come out of retirement and retrieve one of their runaway experiments. Soon, Mr. Incredible learns that this organization is not as benevolent as it first seems, and he finds himself face-to-face with a painful reminder of his past. Worse than that, though, Mr. Incredible’s family has been targeted by a powerful new supervillain, and now they have to band together and use their exceptional powers if they want to survive, even if doing so will place them on the wrong side of the law.
Late in the film, Mr. Incredible and his family are attempting to escape from the volcano lair of the arch villain, Syndrome (Jason Lee), who has dispatched his henchmen to recapture the four Supers. The adult Incredibles are separated from their children, and the two super-powered kids are forced to fend for themselves. While Mr. Incredible’s daughter, Violet (Sarah Vowell) is able to turn invisible and hide from Syndrome’s minions, his son, Dash (Spencer Fox) must rely on his super speed to evade capture. Dash leads his pursuers on a merry chase through the jungle, staying just one step ahead of them the whole time. However, he soon finds his progress impeded by a body of water, and for a moment it appears as though his escape has come to an abrupt. Dash closes his eyes but does not stop running. When he opens them again, he discovers that he is running on the surface of the water. At first, he is surprised, but only for a moment. With a delighted laugh, Dash kicks it into second gear, and leaves Syndrome’s men sucking his wake.
The entire escape sequence is one of the most thrilling and vibrant moments in any superhero movie yet, but it is Dash’s exultation in his own powers that really stands out. An unfortunate side effect of popular culture’s embracing of Joseph Campbell is that there is an abundance of reluctant heroes in films these days. Dash, on the other hand, revels in his exceptional abilities, and his delight is utterly infectious. Watching him run across the water with a sense of such unabashed glee, it’s hard not to get swept up in the moment. At any rate, it’s much more rousing and exciting than watching some mopey reluctant hero shamble into battle with a frown on his face.
Additionally, it’s just a perfectly directed and edited sequence, and one that illustrates that director Brad Bird, editor Steven Schaffer, and the rest of the animation crew perfectly understand how superhero action should be staged. Dash is a whirlwind throughout the sequence, zipping through the jungle while being chased by men in retro futuristic flying machines. Nevertheless, the action is perfectly clear, and the audience gets a real sense of place throughout. It’s a real relief after years of shaky cam and ADD style editing. Furthermore, the fact that it’s entirely animated gives it a leg up on most of the live-action superhero movies that currently dominate the box office. Bird was able to thoroughly unleash his imagination, and it all feels organic. There is never a moment when things start to feel fake because the main character suddenly starts to look rubbery and unreal. It’s one of the reasons why The Incredibles remains one of the best superhero movies of all time (if anything, it’s still the best Fantastic Four movie ever made).
Sometimes a great moment is great simply because of the emotions it engenders in the viewer, and this is precisely the case with The Incredibles. Dash’s escape from Syndrome’s goons is thrilling, vibrant, and utterly enjoyable. It’s one of those moments that is just purely joyous throughout, and it could bring joy to the heart of even the most jaded of filmgoers.