At a screenwriting workshop in Mexico, Professor Mark Schwartz told my class about inciting incidents and sudden reversals; that the hero drives the story, and the villain erects roadblocks; that thematic lines begin early and run throughout; and that a love interest provides the destination. There are always exceptions, but the formula is eternal.
The film Schwartz showed to demonstrate these story-theory tenets was Brad Bird’s 2004 action cartoon The Incredibles, whose opening scenes are a masters’ class in setup. We meet Mr. Incredible first in an interview, where he lays two theme lines: the world always needs saving, and he thinks he’d like a simple life raising a family.
The breakneck action that follows establishes Mr. Incredible as a confident and supremely skilled superhero. Over a single evening he frees a cat in a tree, ends a police chase, foils two robberies, saves a jumper from committing suicide, saves a boy from blowing up, and saves a train full of people from derailing. (The boy who almost blew up, Buddy, sets another theme line – be true to yourself – before being coldly cast away by Mr. Incredible. Buddy will return as the villain, putting up roadblocks.)
Inciting incident? The people Mr. Incredible saved all sue, and superheroes are ordered into hiding. Mr. Incredible hangs up his supersuit and goes to work as an insurance agent, forswearing his powers….
Flash forward 15 years and the plot begins.
This was my daughter’s favorite movie when she was 2. She’d pump her little arms and ask for “the movie with corre corre robot.” Corre means “run” in Spanish, and she likes when Dash, Mr. Incredible’s son, runs through the jungle at a hundred miles per hour. She also likes the big robots. We watched it twice a week for months. Now she’s 3 and we still watch it sometimes, and it’s always fresh.
These are signs that The Incredibles might be perfect:
- After dozens of viewings, it does not get old.
- It is loved, equally for different reasons, by both a screenwriting professor and a baby.
Even The Godfather can’t claim that last one, despite my efforts.