January 26, 2010

Brad Bird (Pixar) on Excellence and Inclusion

It makes sense that Brad Bird wrote and directed The Incredibles and Ratatouille because both movies deal with similar themes about talent and social dynamics. These themes are also dear to my heart, and I've wanted to write this post for many, many moons. Here's my brief analysis, which will eventually touch on both church and education.

In The Incredibles, the powerful supers must hide their gifts and pretend to be normal. Fitting in causes them many frustrations, but exercising their true abilities brings out negative reactions from others. Of course, their own isolating elitism is partly to blame. Mr. Incredible works alone.

But Syndrome and Helen aren't the only ones who castigate Bob for his isolationism. Bob's focus on helping each customer of Insuricare does indeed injure the needs of the company's corporate shareholders. Stupid red tape inhibits individuals, but it's also there for a reason. If the company goes down, no one gets helped anymore.

Bob's meltdown at work is a failure, and he goes back to working alone. Near the end, he gets another good lesson at teamwork - but only with other supers. His future status with the public at large remains very much up in the air, and the film's final sequence offers a disappointing compromise: hold back around normal folks, and fulfill your true potential under the mask, when they don't know you're the one doing all those incredible things.

Brad Bird said some years ago he's struggled to find a story idea worth making into an Incredibles Sequel. In some ways, however, that sequel has already been made.

It's called Ratatouille.

Once more, an exceptional talent must hide their true identity for the sake of keeping up appearances. At the restaurant, Remy is the powerful super-chef behind the scenes. He can create meals on his own, but to share them with others he has to partner with the most untalented member of the kitchen, the garbage boy, Linguini.

In his earlier life, Remy also struggled as the outstanding achiever, misunderstood by his peers. His life was communal, however, so he naturally submitted his powerful sniffer to be poison checker for the good of the group. He did it willingly, but not joyfully. The group's own idea of his best contribution was far below what Remy dreamed of bringing to their (actual) table. Falling into a literal fortune, later on, Remy became able to feed them in ways he enjoyed more, which they also appreciated. His special talents were the gift that he offered in service to his whole community.

If Brad Bird ever does write an Incredibles 2, it will be quite a challenge. Violet just wants a regular life. Bob and Dash want to do great things. Helen enjoys both worlds as long as her family's together. What their family does not have, compared to Remy, is a natural community. It is difficult to assert one's superior talents AND to continue being treated as equal unless one is already among those who have known them since childhood.

A quick point on that last statement: Jesus returning to Nazareth is not an exception. It was precisely his insistence that he was very special (and his stated desire to include Gentiles in God's great mission) that infuriated his friends and relatives so severely. If his desires had been subservient to local interests, Jesus would absolutely have been accepted as Nazareth's healer and teacher; but he was rejected because he suddenly proclaimed himself a visionary worthy of following. A unique Man, Jesus was an Island, unto his Father, and he needed to be, and he knew it. Thankfully - mercifully for our sakes - we do not all need to be Jesus.

Getting back to the cartoons: Bob Parr was exceptionally talented, but his partly snobbish self-isolation was tragically met with anxiety, fear and distrust on the part of the populace. Frustrated by those whose own insecurities seemed to require him to act normal, Bob failed to see his own selfishness. By the end, Mr. Incredible learned that the only way to rejoin the world's normals was indeed to hold back. Again, disappointing, but one cannot manufacture instant bonds when entering someone else's community.

In the Incredibles' world, this may be the best they can do until Bob & Dash find some folks who can interact with their talents without feeling threatened or being impressed by them. (See also: Cars.) Helen and Violet, more suited for subtleties of human interaction, will face other challenges. If Brad Bird ever does write an Incredibles' sequel, I would love to see Bob and his family interact more with the wider world, with and without their masks. (The female side of this could be particularly interesting.) Speaking of masks, it would be nice also to see Brad mix Identity/Achievement with themes of Service/Community.

One more point - and it involves public schools. The Incredibles touched on how school systems ask talented kids not to show out too much, which (at least in the USA) is driven by twin desires: treat everyone equally, provide opportunities for all to excel. In the end of Ratatouille, Anton Ego learned what Chef Gusteau "really meant": not everyone can be great, but great ones can come from anywhere. The challenge then becomes - and this applies to Brad Bird's characters, to our schools, to large communities, and in my personal experience to small churches - what does a group do with its exceptional ones? For the good of all, how do we encourage both excellence AND inclusion?

For one sampling, Brad Bird, Ayn Rand, the USA and Communist China offer various answers. Paul's letters also touch, sometimes, on similar topics. Jesus, I think, mainly talked about sacrifice. But as I've discovered, and as Ratatouille illustrates, it doesn't matter what you want, what you think, or what you attempt to do. How we treat one another remains paramount, but the tipping point for these issues may simply depend on who it is that you're knowing... and on how well they know you.


clay barham said...

Howard Roark, in the Fountainhead, epitomizes what the earliest American settlers discovered that did not exist in the world at the time. It was the ability for each individual to think, imagine, create, build and change the environment with their own sweat, even disturbing the established and accepted way things were done, and without fear of punishment. That was America, and what set her apart from all other nations, as cited in Save Pebble Droppers & Prosperity at Amazon and claysamerica.com.

Bo Heroman said...

GREAT Summaries Dad...Wait...Did I just call you DAD!!!Sheesh...I'm Getting older by the second...

Recent Posts
Recent Posts Widget
"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton