The Incredibles 2

Directed By: Brad Bird:
Written By: Brad Bird
Starring: Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson

incrediblesAt 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.

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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.

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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.)

Rating: 3/4

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Coco

Directed By: Lee Unkrich
Written By: Adrian Molina, Matthew Aldrich
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach

Coco could not have come at a coco-metabetter time for Pixar. It’s been something of a turbulent passage for what is arguably Hollywood’s most beloved animation studio; off camera, figurehead John Lasseter is away on a six-month sabbatical, his sudden absence spawned from “missteps” pertaining to female co-workers. It’s unfortunate news that’s been only stressed by its coinciding with the departure of Rashida Jones from the still-in-production Toy Story 4; Jones citing a suppressive work culture for minorities as the cause.

Meanwhile, on-camera, the studio has fallen into playing the creative get out of jail card that more and more productions seem to be tending towards in contemporary Hollywood: in the absence of originality, make a sequel. Until now, 4 of Pixar’s last seven features have derived from previous works, with their next two scheduled to follow suit.

It’s enough to shake even the most optimistic moviegoer’s confidence in the animation powerhouse; or perhaps might have been if it weren’t for the welcome interlude supplied by Coco, the latest from Pixar which storms the stage and announces itself as the glowing, poignant return to form we’ve long been awaiting from Hollywood’s most accomplished animators— a timely, effervescent reminder of Pixar’s singular ambition, visual wonder, and proclivity for playing heart strings like the film’s hero would the strings on a guitar.

Coco sees one of Pixar’s most trusted storytellers return to the helm, Lee Unkrich (directing credits on Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3 and Finding Nemo) who with great delicacy and attention to detail transports us to contemporary Mexico and journeys inside the world of 12-year-old Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a classic Disney youth whose dreams strain against his familial culture. Miguel’s heart leads him down the same path as that of his Great, Great Grandfather before him, dreaming of a life in music and daring to fill the void long-left by Mexico’s greatest ever musician (and Miguel’s idol) Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).

It’s a longing which Miguel is forced to conceal from his disapproving family, a clan of successful shoemakers who long ago denounced all music; a stunning opening prologue in which animated papel picado banners inform why (celebratory streamers which line the Mexican streets during the annual Day of the Dead celebrations, during which Coco is set). It’s a disdain which has been inherited down through generations, beginning with Miguel’s Great, Great Grandmother who was left betrayed by her husband when he abandoned his family in favour of music, and subsists in Miguel’s own parents today.

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Family is a thematic hub for Adrian Molina’s and Matthew Aldrich’s screenplay—its significance as an agent in moulding identity, the ways in which we are both obligated to and dependant upon it—notions encapsulated by the frequented site of the Rivera ofrenda, a lavish altar which displays the photos of ancestors passed. Tellingly, the film’s namesake is not of its protagonist, but of Miguel’s Great Grandmother, the weary, seemingly comatose matriarch who slowly develops into the film’s emotional centrepiece, a familial beacon who embodies the full bearing one’s antecedents have on their growth.

Equally rich and full is Coco’s depiction of Mexicana, Unkrich hurling himself into the cultural specifics of his setting with equal parts affection and knowingness. It’s in transporting us to distinct worlds, both familiar and otherwise, in which Coco allows its creators to visually stand tall—their constructions at once beautifully textured and rich in imagination. When Miguel breaks into de la Cruz’s mausoleum and steals his guitar, hoping to use it in the Day of the Dead talent show, our  hero is whipped to the Land of the Dead, a dimension in which the macabre and fanciful meet and where the deceased (taking the form of sentient skeletons,) walk undetectably among the living; it’s a land offering its own unique tapestry of soft neons; bustling, Disneyworld inflected cityscapes; and golden, autumnal glows, lending the visual palate a dreamy, ethereal coating.

There are also a lot of rules to this unworldly dimension. The dead can only visit the living as part of the holiday festivities. Miguel, having joined the dead, is not officially one of them, but rather cursed for stealing from the deceased on a day in which the living are supposed to offer gifts to those passed. As such, Miguel must return to the realm of the living before sunset, or be trapped amongst the departed forever, all of which our hero learns with the help of his ancestors, headed by the aforementioned Great, Great Grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach). To make that return trip, Miguel requires a blessing from one of his deceased relatives, but unwilling to subscribe to the conditions laid out by Imelda (namely that of abandoning his musical dream), Miguel instead journeys to find Cruz, believing he and Mexico’s most famous mariachi are connected by more than a shared passion for musical performance, and paving the way for an adventure in strange lands fable that has become something of a Pixar specialty.

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There’s more. For the dead to be able to visit the Land of the Living, they must have their photograph displayed on an ofrenda—memories of the dead must be preserved by those who succeed them in the waking world, for if the dead are forgotten, they disappear completely. It’s a caveat which makes for great tension, particularly in the form of Gael Garcia Bernal’s Hector, a down-on-his-luck trickster with a heart of gold who strikes a deal with Miguel—he’ll lead Miguel to Cruz, if Miguel promises to display Hector’s photo and thus preserve his afterlife.

It’s an audacious and fearlessly complicated system delicately mapped out by Unkrich and his team, one that calls to mind Pixar’s most recent masterpiece Inside Out in its structural complexities, knitting together fragments from the revered likes of Studio Ghibli’s Spiritied Away, Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future, Disney’s own Alice in Wonderland, and imbuing it all with that trademark Pixar penchant for an emotional haymaker.

There are glaring derivations certainly. Seasoned Disney goers will know the ticks in the narrative all too well, Coco borrowing liberally from its own antecedents—from certain twists in characterisation, to the goofy animal sidekick that has accompanied so many Disney heroes on their misadventures. There are thematic familiarities too, the follow your dreams/importance of family theses are as stale as such timeless moral stalwarts can be—a shadow of the sophisticated insights Inside Out dared to dish out.

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But what defines Coco’s heart is not its moral intricacy, but the thoughtfulness with which it meets its those morals, honing them with a comprehensiveness reserved for only the most contemplative works. Coco doesn’t merely refer to its well-worn ideas as some cursory dramatic exercise, but it delves into them earnestly, truthfully, fully, Coco championing its notions of family and daring to dream with an invisible tear in its eye, and its heart on its sleeve, wringing from them a level of pathos and affect that’ll leave viewers first flawed, then exhausted, and finally fulfilled. The sure-fire awards contender “Remember Me”, the film’s signature song, packs an especially audacious emotional punch.

It’s the formula for a film that stands comfortably among Pixar’s strongest, even if it doesn’t quite excel to the heights of the canon’s elite (Coco fits snuggly between the likes of Ratatouille and The Incredibles, and the likes of the Toy Story trilogy, Up, and the aforementioned Inside Out)—not only an enthralling animated film, but a tender and insightful adventure saga. If nothing else, it’s a sparkling return to form for its beloved creators.

Rating:

3.5/4

 

Cars 3

Directed By: Brad Fee
Written By: Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich
Starring: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Armie Hammer, Nathan Fillion

Just how disappointing Disnecars_three_ver6y Pixar’s latest feature Cars 3 is, and just how effective the film is as a piece of storytelling, aren’t reflective of one another. The film itself is innocuous, even sporadically pleasant, marred largely by an uncharacteristically safe and tepid narrative from its reliably bold creators. The disheartenment stems rather from the scent of corporate, moneymaking cynicism which can’t help but linger over the production. Perhaps we’ve been spoilt by Pixar in the past, Hollywood’s chief critical darlings of the animated world for the past 20 years—this, after all, is a studio which has time and again affirmed itself as a beacon of imagination, vitality, and artistic ambition since its debut feature in 1995. Continue reading “Cars 3”