Review: The Incredibles 2

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Director: Brad Bird

Writer: Brad Bird

Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson

Genre: Superhero

Rating: PG

Fifteen years. FIFTEEN YEARS, BIRD. I can’t recall the last time I had such an even reaction of scorn and praise for a filmmaker’s decision. Writer-director Brad Brid stated that he had no intention of giving us a sequel to The Incredibles until he was certain that he was able to come up with an entry that was just as good as or better than the original. With that established, we should be surprised that we would ever get a sequel. But here we are. Obviously, Mr. Bird knows something that I can never hope to know.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Many scenes of fairly intense, high-stakes violence, including threats to the city; superheroes cause some of their own destruction to rescue people. Frequent peril; children/parents in danger. Villain Screenslaver manipulates, controls others by hypnotizing them, either remotely or face to face. The supers must use their powers to attempt to save one another–and regular citizens–from Screenslaver’s planned violence. Some weapons use, including a super-sized jackhammer. One intense/scary fight involves a lot of flashing lights, which may bother photosensitive people. Baby Jack-Jack has a hilarious but prolonged fight with a raccoon; Jack-Jack’s powers include temporarily cloning himself, lighting himself on fire, shooting laser beams out of his eyes, spewing toxic reflux, and turning into a demon. A potentially upsetting story flashes back to how, in the middle of an armed robbery, a husband/father tried to call superheroes, but they didn’t take the call, and the robbers shot him (viewers see the lead-up but not the act itself).

Language/Crude Humor: A use of “crap,” “h***,” and “damned”.

Sexual Content: A married couple kisses and hugs a couple of times. Teens flirt and have crushes.

Drug/Alcohol Use: A toast/cocktails at a gathering, and a wide shot of people at a restaurant who may or may not be drinking. Edna is shown briefly with her signature long-stemmed cigarette.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Themes: Some familial tension.

Positive Content: The biggest theme is that families should work together, acknowledge each member’s strengths and talents. Teamwork, communication, compassion, perseverance are promoted and exemplified. Other issues thoughtfully explored: self-identity, working mothers, at-home fathers, responsibility to help others, teen vulnerability, parent-child and sibling relationships. Marital dynamics also a theme. Another thought-provoking theme: people’s complacency to what they see on screens and how easy it is to be manipulated by screens.

Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl show their children that what’s most important is for families to stick together, no matter what. Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible also demonstrate that every family is different; in some families, it’s the mom who works outside the home and the dad who stays home to be the primary caretaker. Violet and Dash prove themselves worthy and mature enough to help their parents on missions. Despite their differences of opinion, the Incredibles band together to save each other–and their city. Characters demonstrate courage and teamwork.

Review

2004’s The Incredibles is not only one of the greatest and most important superhero films ever made. That seems to have largely gone without saying among those who reflect on such matters. When Brad Bird’s first feature film under Pixar was released, it was a golden time for such a bolt of lightning to strike. No one doubted that a new film from Pixar would leave audiences young and old dazzled back when it had more than established itself as the top tier powerhouse in the field of American animated filmmaking. What surprised everyone was that what was on offer there could not only stand alongside the burgeoning selection of summer blockbuster superhero films that were coming out at that time such as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Bryan Singer’s X-Men films but even surpass them in quality and sophistication while being unironically for the whole family.

In fact, that is the other necessary token of praise that The Incredibles has earned: it is one of the finest pieces of family-oriented filmmaking to have ever been released at any time and in any place and under any condition. That seriously cannot be understated. Many other action films have had a family as a centerpiece to the empathy of the narrative, but almost never is it the case that both the unit and the individual constituents of that unit receive strong development and potent agency to display and utilize. Having recently seen and given praise to A Quiet Place for doing the same, I’m compelled to give more attention to that element in The Incredibles’ success.

What’s more is that we were left with very immediate and explicit hints for a sequel within the movie itself, but nothing in the actual press releases from the studio confirmed any of this for years. While I’m sure typical audiences would cry foul over being denied a follow-up for so long, I have to respect the reason behind it. Brad Bird heartily professes within both his films and his practice that he is very much committed to the virtue of excellence. Some have even observed a noticeably Randian bent to his views that seems to sympathize with the exceptional few who are being held back from achieving their full potential by the masses of mediocrity surrounding them.

This can easily be one of the more pathological dimensions in the dedication to excellence that Bird champions, and it’s even managed to curtail the quality of his own work–most notably in the crushing 2015 disappointment that was Tomorrowland.  Primarily, this fundamentally honorable drive to at least try to make every release a gem has made Bird quite conservative with his efforts. In the present case, it means that he vowed not to write or direct a sequel to The Incredibles unless he was certain that whatever he came up with was just as good or better than the original.

Well, here we are. Was it worth the wait? Well, fifteen years is a long time even in movie years. If what comes is something that we could have gotten a year or two after the first, it would seem like quite a wasteful use of bated breath.

For better or worse–and I do think it’s a bit of both–The Incredibles 2 is very much the kind of sequel about which one can honestly ask why we didn’t get it sooner.  Beginning not even seconds after the end of the first movie, we step into the middle of the grave threat to the city that John Ratzenberger’s Underminer was cooking up when we last met. Many, including myself, were hoping that this entry would do like Toy Story with all the characters having aged in real-time and still played by the same actors. No cigar there, but I can’t complain at least on that front.

I do feel compelled to point out how the film as a whole seems to do too little with too much. The Incredibles 2 strikes me as being an amalgam of numerous sequel ideas with all of them falling just short of being complete. After a disastrous outcome following a conflict with a supervillain, the Parr family finds itself on the wrong side of the law, and their government failsafe in the form of agent Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks) has been decommissioned. This puts the family at risk of homelessness, but this gets resolved before that ever becomes a truly weighty issue.

We are then introduced to a sibling duo of opportunist billionaires who avidly seek to make superheroes great again (they almost say that verbatim) through a radical series of PR maneuvers. You’d think Bob and Helen Parr (Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter respectively) would not be so eager to leap into the arms of another ambitious billionaire with promises of legitimate hero work, but the words of Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) convince them to give it a shot. You, dear reader, should be adept enough by now to see where this is going when two sibling characters voiced by Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener of all people step into frame and dominate the scene, especially if you’re old enough to have seen the first movie.

Odenkirk plays Winston Deavor, who shows genuine levels of fanboy fanaticism for superheroes and eagerness to change the laws that are keeping them as criminals. Keener’s Evelyn is not quite as enthused but is supportive enough to her brother to keep up with his ambitions. The two share a very personal history with superheroes and have strong opinions about their place in the larger society, one that can be analyzed from more than one angle. Snap, that may have been a spoiler right there…

The turning point of interest is when the Deavor siblings announce that they want Helen Parr’s Elastigirl to be the poster child for the new campaign to improve how the public perceives heroes. This is with respect to the fact that Helen’s hero work is far less prone than Bob’s to unsightly collateral damage for obvious reasons. This resurrects some of Bob’s more selfish ambitions, but he has greatly matured from the mire of insecurity that he experienced in the first outing.

When I first sent my initial thoughts of the movie to my siblings (I believe I used the phrase “thoroughly satisfying”), my eldest sister voiced a concern in response:

“Was it a pseudo-feminist parade of anti-man, “the woman’s job is harder” nonsense painted as an Incredibles sequel?”

From the teasers and trailers, one could be easily forgiven for thinking this was the case. It is true that for most of the runtime, Helen is sent on a roaring crusade of derring-do while Bob is left at home to handle the challenge of fathering superpowered children. The good thing is that Bird and company have far too high of a regard for these characters to allow them to fall into convenient stereotypes or tropes. Helen makes a number of significant mistakes in her hero tasks (similar to the ones her husband made in the first go-around with parallel fallouts), and Bob doesn’t just fall into typical stay-at-home dad errors, consistently going above and beyond the call of duty.

With that overarching dynamic at play, one that seems to have been made specifically as a reversal of the dynamic found in the last film, we have a solid basis for another family-oriented adventure story. What’s on offer is just that, more-or-less (perhaps both), though the number of plot threads are numerous to the point that none seem ever completely fulfilled by the end. The daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) has a teen drama issue with Tony Rydinger (Michael Bird) involving memory wipes and paternal interference, but it ends right where it started.  Dash Parr (Huck Milner filling in handsomely for Spencer Fox) hardly has much of an arc this time around and doesn’t get anything like the “100 Mile Dash” sequence from the first film, sadly.

A major yarn here is the family gradually discovering baby Jack-Jack’s superpowers, the catalyst of which is a hilarious bit of physical comedy involving a flabbergasted raccoon. While Bob’s figuring out how to accommodate this new challenge involves sleepless nights, mental exhaustion, and a cameo return by fan-favorite Edna Mode (director Brad Bird), it doesn’t really go beyond “okay THAT’S a thing now”. What’s a bit more disheartening is the thematic strains of the film are also rather underdeveloped in that same manner.

Theme is usually Brad Bird’s strength as a filmmaker, and there are arguably more themes than there are plots it seems this time around. The mysterious villain Screenslaver (Bill Wise) touches on a number of societal concerns, such as people’s tendency to leave appointed others to do their dirty work and overdependence on technology. Such themes are given little more than lip service while the plot trots along as though they are hardly even there. Another thread is the introduction of a whole new band of next-generation heroes (though some seem old enough to have been around before Syndrome’s hero-killing spree) who possess a diverse array of abilities and backgrounds, but they ultimately become little more than plot devices, regardless of whether they serve the heroes or not.

Let it not be believed that The Incredibles 2 is not calculated to dazzle. Bird’s eye for ingeniously crafted action set pieces is on full display here wherever the film calls for it. Many a reviewer (perhaps too many) christened the first Incredibles as the best thing we could ever hope for from a feature-length Fantastic 4 movie. Brad Bird may have a bit of a penchant for succeeding in finding excellence where many others fail with regard to hero stories. I still defend that his directorial debut, 1999’s The Iron Giant, is the best Superman film ever released.

He’s also fondly made stylistic reference to other noteworthy film franchises in both of the Incredibles entries. The 60s-inspired art deco futurist aesthetic still holds up strongly, and composer Michael Giacchino returns with another successfully eclectic musical touch to accentuate the visual flairs. Where the overall story approach for the first film was akin to a James Bond flick, Incredibles 2 is more aligned with the maneuvers of a Mission Impossible title, with all the intrigue and mystery to qualify it for that label. There’s not much here in the way of viscerally satisfying scenes like Mr. Incredible hacking into Syndrome’s computer to discover the fates of his fallen fellow supers or Helen’s aerial chase with the heat-seeking missiles, but none of the set pieces in this romp ever fail to deliver on their promises.

The Incredibles 2 didn’t make me regret that we got a sequel, but it did make me think that a better direction as a follow-up would have been a series. There are enough plot threads here to fill a season on Netflix, and the allowances to give each character and story string more embellishment and volume would have been more abundant there. Something would certainly have been lost in that format, but something else would have been gained as well.

It’s become pretty clear to many that the golden days of Pixar are largely behind us. We might see glimmers of that old glory on occasion in works like Inside Out and more recently in Coco, and it may be that this is what Brad Bird is trying to call to our attention here. Both Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl are relics of might and wonder from a bygone era who still have some of their old tricks to show off, and there are even wealthy fans of theirs who are eager to see them rise and succeed again. There are also harsh critics of theirs who think their time is up and it’s best if we simply move on. Who will be shown to be in the right after this? Who can say?

P.S.:

The Incredibles 2 is preceded by the short film Bao, a sweet–if somewhat poorly paced–cautionary tale about the dangers of the oedipal mother complex. The literalism with which the story is carried out might come as a shock to some viewers (it certainly did to me), and that is really an essential part of its charm.

Positives

+ Outstanding action set pieces + Plenty of plot to keep up interest + The aesthetic still holds up

Negatives

- None of the plots really have any sense of closure - Entertains a lot of themes without really exploring any of them

The Bottom Line

One yearns for the glory days of the Pixar of old, and it’s nice to see some of the rays of that former glory shine through, however dimly.

 

8.3

Tyrone Barnes

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