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Dr. Toon: Coin of the Realm

Dr. Toon looks at what film spent its cultural capital better – The Incredibles or Shark Tale.


What movie spent cultural capital more effectively The Incredibles or Shark Tale? All The Incredibles images © 2004 Disney Enterprises Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All rights reserved. All Shark Tale images courtesy of DreamWorks.

What does an animated movie (in fact, any movie) truly have to sell to its audience besides attractive and talented stars? Easy question, right? There is an underlying story reflecting some universal human conundrums; a plot that structures this story in a meaningful and coherent way; credible characters guided by an equally credible script; and direction that establishes a specific mise en scene that is logically and sequentially maintained throughout the film. In the case of animated films, one might also expect a certain degree of artistic proficiency (in addition to cutting-edge presentation of special effects). A more difficult question is: how does the movie make its pitch? This is not a question that concerns marketing, publicity or industry buzz. There is a deeper process taking place, one inherent in a given films choice of aesthetic and how that aesthetic is extended to particular audiences.

One device that films utilize in order to attract viewers can best be described as cultural capital. Cultural capital can be roughly defined as popular symbols and codes that can be universally identified by an audience. A high degree of commonality is assumed by the filmmakers; there is always an element of audience involvement in the story simply by knowing the conventions and codes of their own popular culture. The more an audience recognizes them, the more successful a film might be. Cultural capital is an elusive commodity that does not always translate well among all mediums.

To give an example, sometimes filmmakers guess correctly when translating literature to film, creating legends such as The Godfather or the Tolkien trilogy. Sometimes they do not, as when Stephen Kings wildly popular novels have been produced for the big screen. Even so, both the tales of the Corleones and the Fellowship of the Ring have traded in on earlier cultural capital since the gangster and fantasy genres of both film and literature preceded them.

The amount of cultural capital a film may actually possess is often a guessing game between the filmmakers and the corporate suits; it can and does go wrong. A stultifying effort such as the live-action version of Josie and the Pussycats was based on the conception that this idea had a good deal of capital: Audience recognition of a cult TV show coupled with the casting of hot young starlets who are at the height of celebrity. In many recent American animated films, cultural capital is figuratively the coin of the realm. The past year saw many highly profitable animated films reach the marketplace. Two very strong performers were the Pixar/Disney collaboration The Incredibles and DreamWorks entry, Shark Tale. Had these films not been successful in offering something to their audiences they would not have been profitable at all. One reason for their success was the judicious use of cultural capital.

Brad Birds opus, The Incredibles, gains its cultural capital from several sources: First, it is a computer-generated film, and such animated films are currently in ascendancy. Second, it is a Disney/Pixar production, and brand recognition figures into the equation, since audiences have specific expectations based on prior experience with this studios films. A great deal of the cultural capital accrued by The Incredibles, however, originated in comicbooks. Superhero comicbooks are in turn an extension of mythologies formulated over centuries of human history. Wonder Woman is an Amazon; Captain Marvel invokes the powers of six Greek gods with the cry Shazam!; the Flash is Mercury in red and gold; Thor and Hercules (among others) actually made transitions from myths to comicbooks. Brad Bird appears to have drawn his inspirations from more recent permutations.


The Incredibles draws on several graphic sources, but the two most salient seem to be Stan Lee and Jack Kirbys Fantastic Four (1961-present) at Marvel Comics and Alan Moores landmark 12-issue series Watchmen (1986-1987) for DC Comics. Three of the family Parr, in fact, replicate the exact powers of the Fantastic Four (The powers of invisibility/force fields, elasticity and inhuman strength are transferred to the Parrs; Dash substitutes super speed for Johnny Storms ability to Flame On!). Bird has studied this source well: The final scene of the movie (and most savvy fans picked up on this) pays homage to the first issue of the comic. Early Fantastic Four Annuals by Lee and Kirby used to feature vignettes depicting the team relaxing at home in their Baxter Building HQ. The FF are a picture of domestic bliss until the Thing and the Human Torch start to bicker and taunt each other. Bird replicates some of this dynamic in the early part of the film to good effect.

The Watchmen details the adventures of retired superheroes. Costumed crime fighting, once a great adventure in the 1940s, has turned into a dark nightmare by the 1970s. Some heroes have been co-opted by the government and all are eventually seen as a public menace (Who Watches the Watchmen?). They are finally eradicated by the Keene Act. To greatly simplify the intricate plot, the Watchmen are forced back into clandestine action. The villain of the series is revealed to be a former superhero who was attempting to bring the world to his vision of order; much the same can be said of Syndrome, the villain featured in The Incredibles. Watchmen confronts the reality of superheroes in a chaotic, cynical world that needs protection but cant admit it. Bird appears to have garnered sundry details from this source (including a treatise on the potential lethality of wearing a cape).

Because the conventions of the superhero saga are so strong in The Incredibles, the film wears its capital on its costumed sleeve. No comicbook fan watching this movie questions the details of a world filled with super-powered operatives and their adversaries. What is the origin of Elastigirl? How did Mr. Incredible gain his powers? Serums? Cosmic rays? Mutations? Who cares? Suffice it to say that because this sort of universe has been so clearly limned (back to the days of Gilgamesh, in fact) even the geekiest fanboy/girl does not quibble over details such as how many times Mr. Incredible faced Bomb Voyage prior to the encounter seen in the movie. They clearly know each other: maybe it was last month (or perhaps back in Issue #2), but what does that matter? The Incredibles, right down to some of the conventions borrowed from James Bond (a special operative in his own right), draws its cultural capital from the enduring, continuous powers of myth.

Shark Tale goes as far as making its characters look like the star that provide their voices.

Shark Tale goes as far as making its characters look like the star that provide their voices.

In the DreamWorks feature, Shark Tale, there is no such mythic resonance. Cultural capital is drawn from widely recognizable sources representing todays modes such as celebrity and hip-hop music. Shark Tale is a film informed by cultural recency and recognition of which celebrity is playing what part. The last point is driven home by having the characters physically resemble the voice actors portraying the roles, as if they had been fitted into piscine prosthetics. Had the film been without credits, audiences could still make very informed and accurate guesses as to which actors and actresses were doing the roles (Hey! That fish looks just like Angelina Jolie! That shark is DeNiro!). With Shark Tale this recognition is central to the enjoyment and appreciation of the film.

Other sources mined for cultural capital in Shark Tale include earlier films. Although the Mafioso family has been a staple of the modern crime film, Shark Tale does not even reach back as far as The Godfather (1972). DreamWorks effort is far more informed by Martin Scorseses 1990, film GoodFellas. This beloved gangster film has achieved cult status and as recently as this year documentaries were being produced about the making ofthe movie. It is no coincidence that Robert DeNiro stars in both films or that Martin Scorsese shows up as the voice of Sykes in Shark Tale. Goodfellas is not so far removed from the present as to interfere with recognition by the young, hip target audience and is thus heavily referenced in Shark Tale.

Shark Tale also draws cultural capital through another device absent in The Incredibles: Product placement and recognition. This is a device that has grown in use since the 1970s. Corporate owners of a film company regularly place their products into the settings of films, making the film itself an advertisement for their diversified product lines. Audiences have grown used to this, sometimes believing that the product placements are there to heighten verisimilitude. In the case of Shark Tale, the products are disguised with parodic names but are clearly identifiable by audiences familiar with the malls and the food courts contained therein. Since these products are blatantly visible icons of popular culture, their capital is strong among audiences.

The Shrek films gains cultural capital from both hip pop-culture references as well as time-tested, classic fairy tales. Courtesy of DreamWorks.

The Shrek films gains cultural capital from both hip pop-culture references as well as time-tested, classic fairy tales. Courtesy of DreamWorks.

DreamWorks, as it functions under Spielberg and Katzenberg, has increasingly used the most modern cultural references to inform their films, especially their CGI creations. Much of the humor in Shrek 2, for example, is based on the recognition of celebrity, materialism and lifestyle endemic to Southern California culture (as typified by Hollywood). Spielberg frequently used hip, self-reflexive humor in many of his animated television series. Katzenberg, who once helped mastermind some of the most complex animated features ever produced at Disney, appears to have become mesmerized by this narrative device (if can even be called that). Shrek 2 survives wearing its onerous mantle of the New and Now better than Shark Tale does, probably because vestiges of the films origin in the fairy tales of antiquity remain.

This analysis brings us to an inevitable process of comparison: Which film is superior in spending its cultural capital to gain an audience? One way to look at this question is to examine the box office gross, but this is a crude rule of thumb. Based on the returns (at the time of this writing) one could say that The Incredibles won the battle by $240 million to $160 million. Still, this turns out to be a relative comparison since both movies were extremely profitable. Another way of evaluating the films might be to examine numerous critical reviews; on the available evidence The Incredibles trumps its DreamWorks counterpart yet again. However, audiences and not professional critics are the heartiest consumers of cultural capital and reviews are naturally subjective in any case. In evaluating which form of cultural capital used by these two movies is most successful (or least debased) it may be more prudent to examine whether or not this capital generates the permanence that marks a film as timeless.

As I have discussed, The Incredibles possesses the resonance of countless hero myths, a very powerful form of cultural capital. If one doubts this, simply recall the popularity of recent movies based on superhero comicbooks and graphic novels. The Incredibles would have been a significant movie had it been released anywhere from 1940 to the present; audiences would have been wowed by this retelling of stories centuries old, just as they fell in love with Superman, Batman and eventually the Fantastic Four (also soon to be a motion picture). The Incredibles covers universal themes of disgrace, redemption, hubris and finally asserts itself as a modern mythology. The films theme of the family triumphant also has strong capital in a time when political discourse seems to be framed by values.

Shark Tale, on the other hand, almost glories in its impermanence. Had this movie been released in 1940, virtually no one could have comprehended much of the content. Because the film lives and dies by its immediate references and in-jokes, it cannot achieve the sort of stature that The Incredibles will ultimately attain among animation fans. This was a deliberate choice on the part of the studio, and even though that decision succeeded on its own terms it is still a deal with the devilfish. In 20 years or less Shark Tale will be laughably outdated, at best a charming relic of what audiences thought was cool back in the ancient days of Wi-Fi. Although the film turned a tidy profit, it will leave nothing behind; it is as if a wealthy tycoon had died, passing nothing on to charity, posterity or the culture in which he lived. The coin of the realm turns out to be merely gilded.

In the final analysis, both The Incredibles and Shark Tale are well-made movies that feature divergent methods of spending cultural capital. The true profit lies in creating unforgettable cinematic legends for audiences. On the basis of such a judgment The Incredibles comes much closer to reaching that admirable goal than does Shark Tale. Audiences and tastes will continue to change with every passing blockbuster movie, box-office smash and Academy Award presentation. Todays coin will not have the same face as tomorrows, but a great story remains timeless.

Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.