As The Incredibles in its day towered over the Hollywood animation landscape of the last decade, so in some measure does Incredibles 2 in this decade — but what a different and diminished landscape it is today.
Those were Pixar’s glory days, but not only Pixar. DreamWorks looked like serious competition for Disney back then, from Shrek to Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. (I’m even a fan of Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas.)
DreamWorks also partnered with Aardman Animations on Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit: Search for the Were-Rabbit. Laika burst on the scene with the darkly dazzling Coraline. Stop-motion animation was commercially viable in the ’00s.
That was then. Post 2010, stagnation has taken hold. Disney/Pixar is basically the only name that matters much, and Pixar’s best days are clearly behind them. American animation filmmaking is unmistakably in decline — not technically, but in terms of inspiration and originality.
All of this is to say that while Incredibles 2 recalls without quite recapturing the crackling, incandescent brilliance of the original, it’s smart, funny, energetic and a lot of fun, which means it’s about as good as we can hope for from the studio that used to be Pixar.
Give Brad Bird credit for audacity: Rather than catching up with our beloved superhero family, say, a year or so after the events of the original film, Incredibles 2 takes us right back to the glory days — to the last seconds of The Incredibles, in fact, with the sudden attack of the subterranean Underminer.
Then, after a furious opening act that does not go well for the good guys, the Underminer vanishes, never to be seen again. What a way to undermine the first film’s portentous final shot, with our heroes donning their masks as a family for the first time.
Like other Pixar sequels going back to Toy Story 2, Incredibles 2 is structured around a number of reversals: This time it’s Elastigirl, aka Helen Parr (Holly Hunter), who finds herself backed by a wealthy sponsor who sends her into action alone, while Mr. Incredible, aka Bob Parr (Craig T. Nelson), stays home with Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (newcomer Huck Milner, a good soundalike for Spencer Fox) and baby Jack-Jack.
The Parr family’s new patron is a telecommunications tycoon and major superhero aficionado named Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) whose philanthropic big idea is the PR rehabilitation of supers, aided by his design-guru sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener). (Another reversal: The tech genius is not the male visionary, but his right-hand girl, and, spoiler alert, if you suspect some shadiness here, and if you read carefully enough, you might find a spoiler in this paragraph.)
Supers in The Incredibles faced an ungrateful world that rejected their help even though they were clearly making things better. Incredibles 2 asks what happens when supers actually make things worse instead of better.
It also asks whether we should stick to working lawfully within the system to change laws or whether violating unjust or unfair laws in order to change the system is ever legitimate. It asks, too, whether our media and collective social addiction to screens is making us too passive and whether we too easily look to heroes rather than taking action ourselves.
Perhaps it asks too many questions — more, certainly, than it has any interest in answering, or even considering in any meaningful way.
What the movie is most interested in is, on the one hand, the exhilaration of Elastigirl taking the spotlight on a sleek red Elasticycle and, on the other, the domestic ups and downs of Bob trying to hold down the fort.
There are some excellent ideas on both counts, from an inspired trick built into the Elasticycle that works organically with Elastigirl’s abilities to the challenges of trying to put a baby with superpowers to sleep (hard enough when they don’t have powers).
Bird’s flair for creative action set pieces, a highlight in the original (and more recently in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol), continues to deliver here. And the well-observed family dynamics of the first film hold up here.
Crucially, Elastigirl’s performance in the field isn’t perfect and Bob doesn’t simply make Mr. Mom mistakes. The movie likes and respects these characters too much to reduce them to tropes.
I don’t mind that Mr. Incredible’s ego is bruised when the Deavor siblings tap Elastigirl rather than him to kick off their pro-super PR campaign. (Evelyn has crunched the numbers, and Mr. I tends to cause more property damage than Elastigirl, for obvious reasons.)
I do mind that Bob’s struggle (through gritted teeth) to support his wife’s success is and remains pretty much entirely egocentric: As he puts it himself, he has to succeed (as a stay-at-home dad) so that she can succeed (as a goodwill ambassador for heroes) so that he can succeed (in public hero work).
This would chafe even if, mirroring his moral arc in the first film, Bob eventually came to a moment of clarity and realized the importance of lovingly supporting his wife for her own sake, not just his. This time around, though, Bob’s ego and selfishness are just one more theme the movie throws out, loses track of and fails to resolve.
I’m not saying Bob doesn’t love Helen or that he doesn’t act heroically and selflessly in the big action finale. I’m saying that Incredibles 2 is not fundamentally about the characters growing and in particular facing up to their mistakes and learning from them, which is what all the best Pixar films have been about.
Of course there’s no recapturing the complicated and revealing relationship between Mr. Incredible and his superfan-turned-archenemy, Syndrome. The villain here, a masked techno-terrorist going by the handle Screenslaver, regards both heroes and the public that looks to them with contempt, but nothing emerges from this that’s really telling regarding our heroes or the story. Screenslaver doesn’t matter the way Syndrome mattered.
Of course Samuel L. Jackson’s Frozone is back, and Bird steps back into character as Edna Mode, and they’re still the crowd-pleasers we know and love. We do see a new side of Edna, but it’s all playing to the crowd. There’s no sense of revelation.
Like Spy Kids before it, The Incredibles celebrated and even mythicized marriage and parenthood and family as a heroic endeavor, but it also did so much more than that. The Incredibles dealt with disappointment with life, marital tensions and even themes around the possibility of infidelity in ways that were both emotionally sophisticated and accessible to younger viewers.
It’s a pleasure to be back among friends. It’s a pleasure to return to this retro-modern comic-book world, with its vaguely 1960s vibe, part Connery-era 007, part Jetsons, accented by Michael Giacchino’s jaunty, swashbuckling score. Incredibles 2 is a well-crafted and likable film whose chief liability is being a sequel to one of the most amazing animated movies ever made.
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Caveat Spectator: Intense action violence; limited cursing and rude language. Older kids and up.