I admire Peter Sagal, host of “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” because he is both funny and eclectic, and I imagine him living the kind of reflective, cerebral life perfected in the salons of the Age of Voltaire.
A recent Chicago Tribune article prompted me to look up an old blog post of his about children’s movies that don’t play down to kids. Sagal’s post is a nice homage to Brad Bird, the director of two Sagal favorites, The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Sagal also makes a pretty daring admission for us Men Among Men: he tears up at the end of both movies.
Which led to a moment of reflection for me. Yeah, I get an inexplicable moistness at the corners of the eye sockets when a story connects with my most genuine emotions — and for me, it usually involves family. Truths about the joys and pains and perseverance of family. So yep, The Incredibles got me, too.
But we differ, Sagal and I, on the moment for choking down that lump in the throat. He cites the scene toward the end when Mr. Incredible tells the missus: “I’m not strong enough to lose you again.” As he points out, this movie isn’t about defeating a villain, it’s about repairing a family, and this moment is the climax of that theme.
The moment that got me misty in theaters, and which even upon repeated viewings I still can’t take my eyes off of, comes much earlier in the movie. It’s a perfect two minutes of filmmaking, of character development, of jeopardy, of failure and consequence. In it, Mrs. Incredible is jetting off to save her husband, and discovers her children have stowed away aboard the plane. As the villain’s missiles close in upon them, Mrs. Incredible must ask for help from Violet, her daughter, who has been taught her whole life to repress her powers:
Raises my heart rate every time.
Sagal is right, this movie is about a fractured family, or at least an unhappy one getting dangerously close to unraveling. This exact moment in the film (aside from being a film-school case study for building tension) is the intersection of all the mistrust, unhappiness and ennui of the Parr family. And it all rests on the shoulders of an insecure teenage girl. Look at the expressions on her panic-striken face! It wrenches my heart every time — what child can handle that kind of failure? Even Dash has his innocence-shedding moment, when he realizes the depth of the trouble they’re in, and he calls for his mother.
The Incredibles builds on this scene with the precision of a Mies van der Rohe blueprint: Violet is sullen and shaken after she fails to save her family, Dash is feeling cocky and invulnerable. The children go on to renew faith in themselves, and ultimately, in their family. That shot in the jungle where the family finally strikes a classic superhero pose together remains one of the most emotionally satisfying moments in movie history for me — I could feel it when watching it in theaters with Oldest Boy, and it’s still there every time we watch it as a family on DVD. (It’s one of Youngest Daughters favorites. She’s so perfect.)
How does Pixar do it? How does it consistently deliver such interesting and captivating movies that seem to know Story better than some of the oldest storytellers in the Hollywood biz? Maybe this quote from an interview with Up director Peter Docter is really the secret:
There are always new ways that the story conspires to trick us, to fool us into thinking we have the right solution. It’s only with a lot of reworking—and reworking and reworking—that you get good stuff.