Life hacks from ‘The Incredibles’
Just like 'The Incredibles', every family needs a fresh challenge to illuminate their existence every now and then
In a television interview in the 2004 film The Incredibles, Mr Incredible, a superhero, looks straight into the camera and says: “No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved, you know, for a little bit. I feel like the maid. ‘I just cleaned up this mess. Can we keep it cleaned for 10 minutes?’ Sometimes I think I’d just like the simple life, you know. Relax a little and raise a family."
“Settle down, are you kidding?" says Elastigirl, also a superhero, in the next interview. “I’m at the top of my game. I’m up there with the big dogs! Leave the saving of the world to the men? I don’t think so. I don’t think so."
And then the two of them marry, settle down in a suburb and begin to raise a family. They do not live happily ever after. This is just the beginning of a new adventure, laced with sardonic insights into the universal conflict between the desire for personal glory and the demands of family life.
When I first watched the Pixar film, I had not known how much I needed to see that film at exactly that phase in my life. Written and directed by Brad Bird, The Incredibles was released in 2004, but I only got around to seeing it a few years later.
A turn of unfortunate events leads to a ban on superpowers and forces Mr Incredible and Elastigirl to give up their superhero identities and fit in as a regular, anonymous family in society. They live as Bob and Helen Parr with their three children, Violet, Dashiell and Jack-Jack. Fifteen years later, their seemingly perfect-looking life has become jaded by the small-scale, repetitive demands of domesticity and child-rearing. As co-parents, they are at that familiar juncture when the children are young enough to consume all the energy of the stay-at-home mother and too young to be interesting to the father, who is already numbed by his tiresome, dead-end job with an insurance company.
“Uprooting our family again so you can relive the glory days is a very bad thing," Elastigirl yells at Mr Incredible when he comes home late one night, having risked playing superhero again and almost blowing the family’s cover.
“Reliving the glory days is better than acting like they never happened," he retorts in frustration.
“Yes, they happened, but this, our family, is what’s happening now, Bob. And you are missing this!" Helen reminds him that he is always absent from the celebrations of his children’s milestones in school.
“They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but if someone is genuinely exceptional…"
“It’s not about you, Bob," his wife cuts him off sternly.
It’s a small, sharp sentence and it cuts deep. It’s not about you. Being an adult means accepting that one’s life choices and actions are not just about oneself. It’s a boring, bitter, essential lesson.
But does being a loving family and having big ambitions always have to be in conflict? Can one not be magnificent in the world and be responsible at home as well?
What made the first Incredibles movie a fun and cathartic experience was the way in which the family breaks out of the shell of ordinariness. Each member of the family comes to the rescue of the others. Mr Incredible comes face to face with his own vulnerability and realizes the limits of his brute strength. Elastigirl strategizes and executes his rescue, all the while making sure that the children are safe. The children, who can’t seem to have dinner together without tormenting each other, use their superpowers in tandem to help rescue their parents. Each one of them stretches themselves beyond expectations, yet they all come together safely as a family again.
Elastigirl showed me that balancing a baby on one’s hip and rescuing the world from the forces of evil go hand in hand, just as long as one is willing to be flexible. Family life doesn’t have to be a barrier in the path of individual success. Done right, it enables each member of the family. The Incredibles made me believe again.
This week, my family and I went to meet our favourite super-family again in Incredibles 2. This time around, Elastigirl is out fighting crime, while Mr Incredible stays home with the kids. His ego hurts, but he’s determined to be a good man.
Soon enough, I pulled out a notebook from my bag and began to scribble notes in the darkness of the theatre.
“Dad, if you want me to feel better, then leave me alone," says the angst-ridden Violet to her father as he struggles to help heal her broken heart.
“Is she having adolescence?" asks Dash about Violet in another scene. I hear my daughter’s laugh from a few seats away.
Another few scenes later, matters have been resolved between father and children. “You’re not good. You are super," Violet reassures her exhausted father.
Just like The Incredibles, every family needs a fresh challenge to illuminate their existence every now and then. We are all uniquely gifted, but not exercising our superpowers to do good turns us against each other. Living a small life makes us feel small. Each one of us benefits from a reversal of roles in our relationships. It’s not like love has been lost on the way, but a good provocation helps it to come alive again.
“What did you like about Incredibles 2?" I asked my 13-year-old daughter as we were walking through the maze of long corridors and stairs to exit the multiplex where we had just watched the film.
“Mamma, Elastigirl was so smart and wonderful and Mr. Incredible was such a good father," she said dreamily. She was still more immersed in the world she had viewed on screen, and was transitioning back as slowly as she could.
“But he could barely cope with staying at home with the three children," I said.
“Yes, he reminded me of you," she said. “You also fall asleep in the middle of the house when we are still playing and doing our own things."
I laughed in shock. Here we were, walking out of a film with the most charming, competent superhero character—Elastigirl —who is also a mother of three super-children, and my daughter was comparing me to the tired, overwhelmed, stay-at-home superhero father.
“Trampoline me!" I said in response, mimicking Mr Incredible’s request to his wife to help him launch himself into the thick of action and adventure.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum. She tweets @natashabadhwar