Directed By: Brad Bird:
Written By: Brad Bird
Starring: Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson
At a glance The Incredibles 2 seems poised to serve as a hotbed of discussion for all things current. A world in which the ubiquity of superheroes is lamented rather than celebrated? Watch out Marvel. A feminist twist on narrative norms in which a middle-aged mother fights crime whilst her husband changes diapers: take note antiquarians. A culture in which people are more concerned with the content on their screens than the content of their character: perhaps we’re all a little guilty on that front. There’s a lot of contemporality on the table, but outside of a courteous tip of the hat and a slight nod, The Incredibles 2 winds up being more defined by a brawl between a baby and a racoon than any true leaning into reality, and that’s not such a bad thing.
Writer/director Brad Bird’s (reprising his duties from the first Incredibles) ethos for his second adventure with the Parr family is rather simply to just have fun, and have fun he does. True, a more accomplished Pixar movie might have better imbued that fun with layers of emotional complexity and tonal daring—qualities noticeably absent from the studio’s latest outing (unlike his protagonists, Mr Bird is content to keep the risk-taking to a minimum.) But what emotional holes there are in the material Bird is sure to plug with extra helpings of his own brand of shapely, jazz inflected action, compiling the most riveting selection of set-pieces since George Miller’s Fury Road.
Watching Bird’s hybrid of kinetic calamity, unbridled creativity and unabashed affection for his subjects, one can’t help but wonder if the director would one day make a worthy hand within the mighty Marvel universe. There’s a lyrical quality to Bird’s action sequences, where they play more like the visual incarnation of extended big band riffs than the cacophony that seems to be required of so many movies sharing the same ilk, with Michael Giacchino’s larger-than-life score lending form to the action via a crackling, swinging pastiche of 1960s covert adventures—sly and bravura by equal measures.
The action commences immediately, transfiguring 2004’s epilogue into 2018’s prologue (no time has elapsed between the two films.) The Underminer has reared his head, and the titular family have swiftly launched into a pursuit that ultimately brings too much collateral damage for too little justice. Enough damage in fact to sever any public goodwill still held towards the already outlawed supers.
Now angsty teen Violent, young speedster Dash, and untameable baby Jack-Jack are hauled up in a schlocky motel, laying low with Mum and Dad (Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible—Holly Hunter and Craig T. Nelson) as they contemplate their next move by the motel pool at night like two parents ironing their finances. Moments like these bring that integral familial undercurrent to the surface; shades of domestic normality that lend this clan of supers a distinct human pulse.
The family finds a helping hand in the form of telecommunications titans Winston and Evelyn Deavour (Bob Odenkirk—toeing the line as ever between amiable and oily— and Catherine Keener.) They believe supers still have a role to play in protecting the masses. If only the public could see the actual tussle between good and evil, rather than the mere debris that results from it, they might be more appreciative.
The Deavour’s solution is to pluck one super, the cool headed Elastigirl is elected, fit her suit with a miniscule camera that can capture all of her gallantry in action, and send her into the world of crime where she can strut her heroics. It’s a nifty little inversion of the first film, where the matriarch takes the reigns as resident ass-kicker and the patriarch takes the reigns as housebound parent—it must be said this is no regular house however, with Winston’s elaborate, Bond villain-like chateau providing a far more tantalising domestic arena for the Parr family than the humdrum suburbia of the first Incredibles.
That emphasis on the humdrum remains integral to the film’s fabric however. The greater affect and insights that might have been distilled from the film’s finely sketched familial dynamic go untapped, but Bird is still sure to augment the everyday humanity of his characters. Fighting crime is the easy part, the real challenges lay in the quotidian: for Violet, boys; for Dash, math; for Bob, the parental juggling act; for Helen, the irrepressible sense of duty to her family, even as she’s locked in a struggle with the mysterious Screenslaver. That same deft balancing of the extraordinary and ordinary that made the first Incredibles such a recognisable joy has been preserved.
It’s not all quite so deft. There are passages in the second act that skew contrived. Expositional asides like Bob’s Incredimobile history lesson never manage to jive with their encompassing context, and segments of characterisation can’t help but feel detached from the segments that preceded it, like they might have been assembled out of order; the seamlessness one might have expected from such polished storytellers isn’t quite there.
The film’s weakest attribute however is a weakness all but unanimously felt across the Superhero cosmos: the struggle to conjure a foe worthy of the protagonists. The trouble with The Incredibles 2 villain is that their motive is reverse engineered from a twist—the two don’t fit together, and that counterintuitive process unintentionally raises more questions than it answers. One can’t help but long for the first film’s antagonist, Jason Lee’s Syndrome: smart, capable, with both a method to and reason for his madness, seasoned with just the right amount of creepy.
No such bad-guy here, but thankfully these red-clad warriors do come perilously close to disproving the age-old adage that a hero is only as good as their villain. Even the side characters provide luminous joys. Eccentric, costume designing wiz Edna Mode (voiced by Mr. Bird himself) threatens to make the film her own just as she did 14 years prior with limited screen time, her affectionate barbarousness as irresistible now as it was then. As does Sam Jackson’s ice wielding Frozone, appropriately cool as ever. The day finally belongs to baby Jack-Jack however, blessed with both polymorphic and perennial show stealing abilities. He’s the film’s card up the sleeve, incorporated seamlessly into the bigger picture by Bird, and is now all but earmarked for, at the very least, a short of his own. It’s Jack-Jack’s aforementioned brawl with a racoon that best captures Bird’s sparking imagination at its most liberated.
It all results in an indelible, retro-futuristic world, populated with characters and filled with sounds that are similarly indelible. What the film lacks in punch, it redeems in panache, and whilst it’s not quite enough to make The Incredibles 2 worthy of its title’s adjective, it is enough to make this sequel, 14 years in the making, worth the wait (and enough to make it the best Pixar sequel not named Toy Story.)