Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why Thomist Children Should Watch "The Incredibles"

I really enjoy cartoons, I have to admit. I even like Anime.
It doesn't matter if the animations are hand drawn or CGI, as long as they are done artfully, and with some aesthetic sense. That's why I love Pixar. I think Pixar has probably been the best thing to happen to American animation since Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse. In terms of the sheer artistry and technical skill displayed in their animations, and in terms of character development, dialogue, pacing and plot, Pixar films far excel the attempts of their less creative competitor Dreamworks.
Dreamworks, of course, was the studio that brought you the interminable Shrek series, in all its tedious, strained, pop-culture humor.
Don't get me wrong, I really liked the first Shrek. It was clever, and funny and I really appreciated the ending of the movie. Shrek 2 even had its points. If you don't find Antonio Banderas's send up of himself as Puss in Boots funny, you probably don't actually have a sense of humor, and should seek medical attention from a specialist. In any case, I will have more to say about Shrek later.

Why then, should Thomist Children watch The Incredibles in particular? Leaving aside for the moment whether there are such beings as Thomist Children, there are several reasons. First of all, this is one of the few "family" films of recent years that actually centers around the much scorned nuclear family. Seriously, so many children's films actually set out to undermine the whole notion of family and its importance. Usually, they do this with good intentions, but there is a famous road paved with such intentions.
The Incredibles, however, celebrates the family and a major theme of the film is the importance of being a responsible member of the family. Which leads to the real reason why Thomist Children should watch this movie: The Incredibles is a movie about Virtue. That may sound odd, but it's true. Here is the key scene (in my opinion):

Dash, the son of two super heroes, sums up the basic conflict of the film here: When everyone is special, no one is.
In case you don't know about the plot of The Incredibles, I will explain (spoiler alert). It's a story about the daily lives of a couple of married super -heroes, who have retired from the business of saving the world. They have not retired by choice, but because Super - Heroism has been outlawed. In the opening sequence of the movie we learn that what defeated Super - Heroes was not super villains, but bureaucrats and lawyers. Mr. Incredible made the mistake of saving a man who was trying to kill himself by jumping off a ledge. The suicidal man survives, but proceeds to bring a lawsuit against Mr. Incredible for emotional distress. His lawyer tells the assembled press, "My Client didn't ask to be saved. Mr. Incredible's actions were irresponsible."
A chain of lawsuits follows and eventually it becomes impossible for Super Heroes to operate at all.

So Mr. Incredible, with his superpowered wife, ElastiGirl, retires and gets a soul killing office Job at an insurance company. Meanwhile he and his wife have three superpowered kids, who are forbidden to use their powers, for fear that their carefully constructed cover could be blown. The family has been strained to the breaking point by their unfortunately successful attempt to remain mediocre.

Eventually, this becomes too much for Mr. Incredible, who secretly resumes super - heroics without the knowledge of his wife or family. Eventually, his dishonesty leads to disaster, and his whole family is put in danger when they are discovered by an ambitious young super - villain.

Despite the dangerous situation they are placed in by Mr. Incredible's recklessness, the family is actually saved by finally having the chance to use their powers. When they are forced to defend themselves and employ their powers, they actually become much better individuals and a stronger family.
Mr. Incredible makes a terrible mistake by lying to his family, and that is portrayed as a mistake, but he is not mistaken in trying to be, well. . . incredible.

This movie is all about using everything you have been given to be an excellent person. I have heard some people remark that this film must have been influenced by Ayn Rand, but I see more of Aristotle in it. For one thing, Ayn Rand had no time for family or children. Her stories, it's true, emphasize the goodness of personal excellence and fulfillment, but from what I can tell, she recognized no external constraints upon the individual. For example, Rourke, the hero of The Fountainhead, has no qualms about stealing his best friend's wife (Rand provides some pseudo-rational justification for this). In The Incredibles, Mr. Incredible fails to be a hero when he neglects his responsibilities to his family. He becomes a Hero at the same time he becomes a responsible husband and father. The personal fulfillment of the characters comes not as individuals, but as a family. They take responsibility for each other and help each other.

Their happiness is not a happiness of individual fulfillment at the expense of others, but a happiness which consists in self sacrifice and responsibility. In the world of The Incredibles it is precisely in the context of the family, with all of its inconveniences and irritations, that personal excellence is achieved. In Aristotle's thought, virtue is precisely human excellence of this sort. Aristotle, like most of the Greeks, would also have encouraged a little healthy competition amongst men of virtue. Virtue should be recognized and rewarded, and attempts to say "everyone is special" even when they have achieved nothing in particular, undervalue the achievements of really virtuous men and women. The virtuous are right to demand the chance to exercise their virtue, and right to demand that their virtues be recognized for what they are.

A key point in Aristotle's thought, though, which separates him from thinkers like Nietzsche and, to a lesser extent, Ayn Rand, is that he does not understand Human excellence to consist either in the arbitrary exercise of the will, or to be something which an individual can attain alone. Virtue is reasonable, not arbitrary, and it is social, not individual. For Aristotle, a virtuous person must also be a man who lives and interacts with other men and women in society.

And society, of course, starts with the family. Catholic Christian thought has developed this insight quite deeply, but it is present in the better part of Aristotle's thought as well (See Book 1, c. 2 of The Politics) . At his best, Aristotle acknowledges the importance of the family, against his teacher Plato, who would have given over the care of children to the state.

So in its emphasis upon virtue, I would say The Incredibles is an Aristotelian movie, and in its emphasis upon family, responsibility and self sacrifice, it is a Christian movie. Of course, the movie is not perfect, and in a certain sense it is not Christian or even religious. There is no mention of God at all. I doubt the director thought about catholic Christian understandings of the family and Aristotelian ideas of virtue at all when he made this movie. But in its basic way of seeing the world, it fits more with a Christian (specifically a Thomistic) world view than with any other view.

Now, it might rightly be asked, are children's films not trivial things, unsuitable as a topic for a blog which claims to be about Christian theology? In a way yes, and in a way no. Any given Children's movie probably is trivial, but children's movies as a whole are extremely important. Children and adults are both formed by the stories we read and watch. The stories we tell our children shape their imaginations in incredibly important ways. Stories, I am convinced, are the basic ways that we make sense of the world. They give us the unstated assumptions upon which most of our actions are based. If children are brought up watching movies where family doesn't matter, and "everyone is special" and happiness is nothing but a contented mediocrity, then they will believe these lies without even realizing what they believe. Children need stories that put them in a position to understand the truth when they actually hear it articulated.
By itself, The Incredibles is not very important, and it is not sufficient (for one thing, there is the aforementioned absence of God). But it is basically the right kind of story.

In this it is different from most of the children's movies that dominate the market; movies like Shrek and its endless sequels. The Shrek films are funny, but they are pervaded with a winking cynicism that, to me at least, seems unwholesome. They are parodies, and parodies are finally uncreative and derivative by their nature, no matter how funny they may be. They also thrive on reversals and irony. The Ogre becomes the knight, the handsome prince turns out to be the villain, and of course, the beautiful princess becomes an ugly ogress - but that's good, because physical beauty is really only superficial and deceptive.
Or take for example, Dreamworks' most recent offering Despicable Me, about a super villain with a heart of gold. Again, it is parody and reversal: the Super villain becomes the super hero.
As far as all this goes, there is nothing wrong with it. Beauty can be deceptive, the supposed good guys can turn out to be bad guys.

Every now and then, we need a good parody to remind us not to take ourselves to seriously, or to point out the hypocritical or the trite, but when parody becomes the mainstay, it is a sign of decadence. Human imaginations can't survive on irony alone. When every film stars a villain as the hero, it shows that we have lost faith in heroes. And if children constantly see heroic persons portrayed as ridiculous, and ridiculous persons portrayed as heroic, what will that do to their view of the world? Who will they want to grow up to be, the knight or the ogre?
The starting point needs to be stories where goodness and beauty are simply good and beautiful, where heroes are really heroic.
The Incredible's manages to portray genuine heroism without irony, and equally without tedious sermonizing. I wish there were more kids movies like that.