I’ve been a fan of Brad Bird ever since his days on The Simpsons, where he directed some classic episodes, including “Krusty Gets Busted,” the first in the longstanding rivalry between Bart and Sideshow Bob. He was also a consultant on The Critic, the show that inspired this very column. He’s had a brilliant career, to the point that he’s even doing live-action films now (Tomorrowland and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), but his bread and butter is in animation, where he is both a visual master and an amazing writer.
In 2004, he gave us The Incredibles, arguably the greatest animated film of all time. Fourteen years later, we finally have the long-awaited sequel, and our patience was well rewarded. Is Incredibles 2 as good or better than its predecessor? No. But it’s still a worthy entry that could stand alone on its quality. The sequel lacks the emotional resonance of the original, but the action and comedy are still at that elite level that few other than Bird can produce.
The film picks up quite literally where the last one left off, with the Parr family at a track meet for son Dash (Huck Milner, replacing the now adult Spencer Fox) when the city is attacked by the Underminer (John Ratzenberger, maintaining his Pixar voice streak). The family springs into action, the first of many elaborate set pieces of derring-do. Like the opening jewel heist in Despicable Me 3 last year, the carnage is stopped, but the bad guy gets away. As such, the Incredibles are arrested for violating the law that forces “Supers” to stay out of public life.
To make matters worse, the government’s witness protection-style program is discontinued in wake of the controversy, so Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks, replacing the late Bud Luckey) can only front the Parrs a two-week stay in a hotel and wipe Tony Rydinger’s memory of seeing Violet (Sarah Vowell) without her mask before entering a quiet retirement. Not only are the Parrs forced back underground, but they’re broke and homeless to boot (what with the wreckage of Syndrome’s plane destroying their home in “TOTALLY WICKED!” fashion last time).
That is, of course, until Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), and Lucius Best/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) are recruited by fanboy billionaire Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk – the character’s name a punny portmanteau of “winning endeavor”) and his sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener). The pair run a high-end telecommunications company. Winston can sell ice to an Eskimo, while Evelyn is a tech genius who can solve just about any problem put in front of her. Their late father was friends with many of the old superheroes (including Gazerbeam, shown murdered in the previous film), and Winston believes that the laws forcing Supers out of society contributed to their parents’ deaths, as his father couldn’t call for help when robbers broke into their house.
So given the Incredibles’ latest actions, he wants to help change the laws by using the three of them, specifically Elastigirl, in a public relations campaign, pinning bodycams to their super suits so people can see their heroics from a first-person perspective. People already love the Supers, they just need to show how awesome they are – while causing as little property damage as possible, hence Bob’s initial spot on the sidelines – to make that public support much more vocal, leading to government action in their favor.
This leads to a repeat/reversal of the midlife crisis theme from the last film. In the original, Bob gets an undercover Super job, which motivates him to get back in shape and get a new lease on life. This time, it’s Helen who gets the spotlight, forcing Bob to become the domestic. It’s a somewhat dated look at gender roles, but given the anachronistic 1960s motif set against present to near-future technology, it works within the framework. Plus, it’s a chance for Elastigirl to make good on her interview segment from the original film, taking her rightful place among the greats instead of “leav(ing) the saving of the world to the men.”
This splits the main pair off into their own, equally satisfying adventures. Elastigirl performs acts of heroism, thanks to the timely menace of a new supervillain calling themselves “Screenslaver,” who uses media screens to hypnotize unwitting victims to do their bidding. The villain’s main motivation appears to be to attack the people who rely too much on their technology (i.e. kids who can’t look up from their phones these days) by using said tech against them. Elastigirl foils Screenslaver on multiple occasions, getting ever closer to finding out their true identity, as well as boosting Super PR and mentoring new Supers, including a fangirl named Voyd (Sophia Bush) who is basically a human game of “Portal,” Krushauer (Phil LaMarr), who can use his mind to crush things, and Reflux (Paul Eiding), an elderly Super whose power is regurgitating lava.
This entire A-story has some absolutely brilliant set pieces, with Elastigirl as an immensely relatable and charismatic lead. The action is eye-popping even without 3D, particularly Helen’s ability to dislodge her new motorcycle into two parts which she can slingshot by stretching her torso. The dialogue is witty, with a natural chemistry between Helen and Evelyn/Winston. And honestly, just the glee with which the characters comport themselves is contagious. Whereas Bob’s new job gave him existential purpose in the last movie, Helen just gets to have some unbridled joy in being center stage for once. Also, not for nothing, but animation has evolved greatly in the last 14 years, and let’s just say Elastigirl’s new suit grants some very alluring definition over the course of the film. Yes, I’m a perv. Sue me.
The only flaw is that if you’ve seen the original, or if you have any knowledge of basic plot mechanics, it’s pretty easy to figure out who Screenslaver is. The suspense wasn’t in the identity, but rather in the timing. How and when would Helen figure it out? And of course, once she does, how will the tables be turned to get the rest of the family back in the picture? Remember, this is a movie for kids primarily, so the plotting has to be at least somewhat on their level. They’ll think themselves quite clever when they figure it out, whereas the adults in the theatre might as well have a stopwatch to time how long it is between when they figure it out and when the answer is actually revealed.
The B-story, featuring Bob as a stay-at-home dad (the Deavors give the family a post-modern mansion to live in as compensation for joining the team), is just as great in its own way, though leaning more on laughs than action or emotion. First he must deal with Violet, who as a typical teenage girl is very sullen when she’s stood up for her date with Tony. Of course, this is indirectly Bob’s fault. When he asked Rick to give Tony a memory wipe, it accidentally included wiping ALL memory of Violet from Tony’s mind, leading to a good deal of justified (if mildly misplaced) resentment on Violet’s part towards Bob and Supers in general, not to mention some odd moral equivalency debates about obeying unjust laws.
Dash is super fast, but not super smart, so he requires lots of help on his homework, particularly math, which leads to a lot of Common Core bashing. I agree with it to an extent (Why change math? Math works!), but it’s an odd bit of political posturing for a Disney/Pixar film.
Finally, baby Jack-Jack is at last displaying his new powers to the family. We got hints of it in the previous film (and the companion piece showing what prompted all those nervous phone calls from poor babysitter Kari), but now the rest of the family is in on the secret. Jack-Jack can morph into a demon-like monster; he can self-immolate; he can multiply; he can launch himself with a sneeze and transport himself to another dimension, only to be lured back into our reality by cookies; he can shoot lasers from his eyes; he can melt into a gelatinous substance. There’s a lot he can do, most of it put on display for the first time in a hilarious fight sequence with a raccoon that would make the classic masters of animation (Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, etc.) stand up and cheer if they were still alive. It also makes me yearn for a Guardians of the Galaxy crossover just to see how he’d deal with Rocket.
Due to the plethora of things he doesn’t know how to handle, and the jealousy and malaise of being relegated to the bench, Bob quickly becomes exhausted. He seeks out the aid of Edna Mode (Bird himself, reprising the role), asking her to “study” Jack-Jack for a night and make him a new super suit so Bob can get one night of sleep. Initially hesitant (and insulted for Helen using a suit other than the one she made for her), “Auntie Edna” quickly becomes enamored with Jack-Jack’s “polymorph” abilities, and takes to her latest task with manic aplomb, and of course the usual lack of capes.
In many ways the film is a rehash of its predecessor. There are some silly moments of logic in the climax which we all know are only there to prolong the action before everyone finally “gets it” and can beat the bad guys. The film is also very cavalier about death and destruction, which before made for a good deal of pathos, but now can act as a commentary on the “collateral damage” assessments of modern comic book movies.
There are also a few new elements that add to the overall quality. The animation is crisper, the set pieces more elaborate (which is saying something, considering some of the fights in the original). Also, I think this is the first instance of an utterance of any kind of profanity in a Pixar film, courtesy of Evelyn: “Well I’ll be damned.”
But really, the only way in which this film doesn’t live up to the original – and sadly it’s a major element – is in the resonant family drama. I’m not talking arguments, I mean the genuine emotional bonds of family that elevated the original to pantheon status. When I watched the original Incredibles, I merely enjoyed it until Elastigirl flew to the island to find Bob. She was convinced he was having an affair, but instead he was captured by Syndrome. As she’s flying over and dealing with her stowaway children, Syndrome launches attack missiles. Helen begging over radio that there are children on board, and the utter despair and loss felt by Bob when he thought his family was dead, the glee on Syndrome’s face at “breaking” his hero, and Mirage’s visible realization of what she was a part of and her requisite change of heart – it’s those things that hooked me forever.
There are no such moments in this film. There’s still a strong familial bond theme, but it’s played for laughs for the most part. I was waiting for that major stock-taking moment, but it never came. It’s not a requirement, but when comparing the two, it’s stuff like that that makes Incredibles an A, whereas this is not an A. It’s still a great summer film, and a worthy entry into the Pixar universe, and apart from Toy Story 3 it’s the best sequel in all of Pixar. But if you’re looking for something that will elevate the original Incredibles into a new generation, you might be disappointed. For what it is, though, it’s a lot of fun.
Now, moving on to the short. It’s been a tradition since Toy Story 2 to include a short film as an intro to Pixar films. The only break was with Coco last year, where instead of a Pixar short we got the wholly ill-advised Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, a Christmas special from Disney central shoehorned in front of a Pixar film set two months before Christmas, and it actively pissed off audiences, to the point that Disney pulled it after two weeks, claiming it always planned to do that.
Well, this time we get a return to form with Bao, a mostly silent short, written and directed by Domee Shi. The film features an aging Chinese woman who makes dumplings one morning for her busy husband. Before she can eat the last one, it cries, revealing itself to be alive, and growing limbs. Overjoyed, the woman raises the dumpling boy as her own son, spending as much time with it as possible. As the dumpling grows, he becomes more distant, eventually shunning his “mother” for his friends and becoming engaged to a white American girl. The mother, filled with rage and a sense of abandonment, finally eats the dumpling, leading to an emotional breakdown and a dramatic reveal of the true nature of all the events we’d seen.
There’s some organic pathos to the whole proceedings, and as is the case with most great Pixar shorts, so much is said without really uttering any words. Still, the animation is a bit off to me, particularly in the making of the dumplings themselves. The characters all have stubby, blobby fingers, which sort of makes for a weird melting effect when they try to fold the bits of dough for the dumplings. It almost looks like the frame rate is off or something. Still, this is a fine entry, and will almost certainly be nominated for Best Animated Short next year.
Grades: Incredibles 2 – B+
Bao – B-
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How does this film compare to other superhero films? Is it really that pervy to admit that Elsatigirl has a great ass? She seemed so upset about it in the last film! I’m just trying to be body positive, I swear! Let me know!