Writer/director Brad Bird’s 2004 The Incredibles remains one of my all-time favorite Pixar films, and not just because it was about superheroes. I could relate to a film about an aging guy who considers himself talented but thinks he should be doing something better with his life, but whose family had much more important concerns than his, and everyone has to dive deep into their conflicts but come out all the stronger for it as a unit. And a film where there are spectacular chase scenes. And just so happens to draw on seventy years of mainstream super-hero culture.
Fourteen years later Incredibles 2 brings back Bird and the family to pick up where they left off. But are the viewers in the same place fourteen years later?
Short version for the unfamiliar: Seconds after the original ended, Our Heroes finish up that promised fight with the Underminer (still John Ratzenberger!), but with disastrous consequences that fail to overrule one of the original film’s central issues: the strict, Watchmen-esque laws against super-vigilantes. The fantabulous Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and her other half, the buffoonish Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), are still operating illegally and weeks away from destitution when a better offer comes along. Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) is a deep-pocketed zillionaire and #1 super-hero fan aiming to mount a goodwill campaign convincing the world to re-legalize super-heroes. All he needs is the ultimate spokesperson for the cause: Elastigirl!
Awkwardly, Mr. Incredible — whose super-strength and clumsy machismo tend to cause more collateral damage than his wife’s bouncing and stretching — has to stay home, play househusband, and fake his way through parenting their kids Violet (Sarah Vowell returns), Dash (newcomer Huck Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile, somehow eternally young), whose randomly manifesting Every Superpower Ever makes him liable either to kill them all by accident or turn into the world’s greatest super-villain by adulthood.
And as Elastigirl celebrates her new day job as the role model everyone needs, behind the scenes lurks a streaming-powered menace called the Screenslaver whose sinister agenda involves mind control through our precious entertainment devices and super-heroes staying hidden in shame forever. Will Elastigirl save the day alone, or does anyone else get to help?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Other returning voices include Samuel L. Jackson as icy buddy-hero Frozone; Kimberly Adair Clark (a Pixar HR rep) as his extremely impatient wife, still undercutting him from offscreen; Brad Bird himself as super-designer Edna Mode, furious that Elastigirl’s new costume was not her work; and Bird’s son Michael as Tony, the guy Violet has a crush on that no one should ever ask her about or else. Jonathan Banks (Breaking Bad, Community) takes over for the late Bud Luckey as the Incredibles’ government handler Rick Dicker (now retired).
Catherine Keener (Get Out among dozens of other things) is Deavor’s sister, the IT genius who facilitates his campaign and his dreams, but with a decidedly differing attitude. Other super-heroes on hand include Sophia Bush (One Tree Hill) and the amazing colossal Phil Lamarr in two different costumes.
Other non-supers in the background include Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet), Jere Burns (Dear John), and TV’s Barry Bostwick.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Super-heroes: great or awful? Useful allies or ruining everything? Doing the hard jobs others can’t, or making us too lazy to be self-reliant? Crucial or crutch? Threat or menace? The issue comes up in many super-hero works, to varying degrees of effectiveness because true vigilantes are rare in the real world, never express long-term ambitions, and are much easier to injure. There aren’t a lot of nonfictional anecdotes or controversies to draw from.
Fictional super-hero universes tend to take their presence for granted because the point of such works is big fun super-heroics, not sociopolitical debates about their very existence. Super-heroes can waste lots of breath debating why they’re super-heroing, or they can shut up and punch stuff. Which one would a family rather pay to see? The crux of the film is sorting that out once and for all so sequels will be easier to churn out without having to justify the Incredibles again and again and again.
Other morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:
1. Women are as capable as men at all the things and whatnot.
2. The househusband role is not an easy job but can be a totally functional thing (I know a guy who’s won at it for years).
3. It’s quite possible for two siblings to come away with very different impressions of the same traumatic childhood event.
4. It’s okay to ask for help when you’re in over your head.
5. Bribery as a reinforcement tool for small kids only works to a certain extent.
6. Hero worship can give us a blind eye where we least expect it.
7. Meddling in a daughter’s love life is the best way for a dad to ruin EVERYTHING.
8. Enormous patience is a far better mechanism for coping with your baby’s problems than any man-made device.
9. The presence of money isn’t always automatically evil.
10. A good P.R. campaign can override any legal hassle lickety-split.
Nitpicking? That last “moral” bugged me more than anything. Much is made throughout Act One of the complicated relationship between the “supers” and the ordinary public, frightened and confused by beings they don’t understand. By Act Three, after a couple of good deeds on Elastigirl’s part, the entire world has suddenly changed their minds and clamors for an easy solution to upconvert itself to the same yay-heroes attitude as all the other cinematic super-hero universes and thereby end the movie ASAP. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the eventual happy ending is too pat, all too ready to get the dance party started.
The sequel consequently lacks the emotional core of the original. Previously, our happily married super-couple had several tons of baggage to deal with — not just the world’s, but with their perceived roles and by extension their very relationship. This time around Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl diverge into separate plot tracks at the beginning of Act Two and wrestle their own challenges. When they reunite by the end, it’s not because of any unifying theme emerging from their juncture. Rather, they’re in the climax together because, well, fans want the team back together at the end. And so it is, but there’s no deeper resolution beyond a basic “the day is saved once again, thanks to the Incredibles!” That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but Bird at his best used to show a level of craftsmanship several levels above “basic” from “Family Dog” to “Krusty Gets Busted” to The Iron Giant and onward and upward.
To my own annoyance, I guessed the mysterious Screenslaver’s secret identity even before meeting any of the new characters. We know it’s a secret to be revealed later because of all the secrecy and shadows abounding, right there in the trailers from the get-go. Anyone aware of the Law of Economy of Characters will notice the list of suspects is teeny-tiny. Worst of all, I made the mistake of reading one Incredibles 2 review that, through the use of exactly one (1) cagey pronoun, spoiled it by implying exactly what sort of identity to expect. Sure enough, I nailed it before the movie began, possibly a new record for me.
A number of other heroes debut as supporting characters, some without voices, a few that go unnamed altogether. That’s not uncommon for films of this size (hi, yes, I see you lurking over there, Star Wars series), but a third-act punchline involving one of their names falls flat because they never introduced themselves in the first place.
I’m also tempted to question the mechanics of Elastigirl’s Elasticycle, which separates and rejoins like the Enterprise and its bridge, except with mere split-seconds between detachment and reattachment and re-detachment and re-reattachment, all without showing any loss of power or momentum. Obviously we can just yell “IT’S SCI-FI” at that one and moved on, but it distracted me all throughout her big bold runaway train sequence, which would be closer to astonishing if it didn’t feel like an homage to Spider-Man 2.
So what’s to like? All the usual components of a Pixar production are on point. The vocal performances are as strong as ever (Nelson and Hunter remain in synch as a bickering but ultimately loving couple), the metropolitan setting is typically expansive, and — after all the chitchat setup throughout the first act — the action is relentless through the rest of the running time. Best scene of the bunch is a backyard showdown between Jack-Jack and an angry raccoon, a high-speed slapstick slap-fight that reminds me of the Pixar short “Presto” in awesome ways.
Incredibles 2 is far from my favorite Brad Bird film, and hardly groundbreaking by the too-high Pixar standards of yore, but it’s perfectly serviceable for its standard, simple, straightforward, nearly self-contained super-heroics, which audiences largely aren’t getting from other superhero films of late. This season has also been a particularly dry one for the “family film” category, which used to be a dominating force of every summer movie release slate. A check of recent and upcoming schedules shows most of the major animation studios are off the docket, busy at work on their next sequels (seriously, a ton of sequels are on the way). Pixar’s only real animated competition coming anytime soon is Hotel Transylvania 3, whose fan base isn’t quite identical.
Old fogies like me with too many of decades of superhuman consumption experience to their credit may not find Incredibles 2 mind-blowing, but it’s…y’know, it’s basically above-average cartooning, and decent superhero stuff. It gets a B-plus, but doesn’t care to overexert itself for an A.
How about those end credits? Remember the days when every Pixar film had a scene after the end credits? Good times, long over. But those who stuck around for the rest of the Incredibles 2 end credits do have the pleasure of hearing some of Our Heroes’ classic ’70s theme songs that never were. Disney/Pixar fans will also note a dedication to the aforementioned Bud Luckey, a longtime animator who was also the voice of the sheep narrator in the Pixar short “Boundin'” and Eeyore in the 2011 version of Winnie the Pooh.
Also worth noting: before the film is a new short called “Bao”, about an Asian woman and her fragile baby dumpling. Kids will find it silly and cute, if confusing, but any parents who’ve ever had an adult child leave home over questionable choices — or who were that child once — will find it far more emotionally wrecking than the feature presentation.