Its nice to see Brad Bird back at cruising speed, three years after his unfairly maligned live-action mega-flop Tomorrowland. Perhaps out of both passion and necessity, hes returned to the world of The Incredibles: his critically revered smash-hit 2004 animated film about a family of superheroes who reluctantly accept societys smothering of their specialness until they simply cannot anymore. A zipping, eye-popping action film—often hailed as one of the genres best, this century or ever—the first Incredibles has caught some drag in recent years from critics whove sniffed out traces of Ayn Randian, Objectivist politics lurking under its bright and friendly shine. But for the most part, The Incredibles remains a certified classic, one of Pixars crown jewels in an already plenty studded diadem.
So why mess with success? Why even risk the awkward growth spurts of setting the sequel 14 years after the first film? Bird takes no such chances, instead picking up with Mr. Incredible, his wife Elastigirl, and their children Violet, Dash, and baby Jack-Jack near immediately, as they attempt to thwart a mole-like villain called the Underminer, introduced at the end of the first film. This opening sequence is a stunning testament to Birds uncanny spatial awareness, his playful understanding of physics. As the family barrels after this villain, catching a runaway monorail in the process, Incredibles 2 amuses and genuinely thrills; Bird likes to have serious fun, never sacrificing the awesomeness of an action sequences dizzying intensity to land a wry or softening joke.
Incredibles 2 is plenty funny, mind you. After the Underminer disaster turns public opinion even more sharply against superheroes, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) goes back underground with the kids, while Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) is sent off to another city to do some superhero P.R. work arranged by a brother/sister tycoon/inventor duo, played by Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener. Ive heard some people call this particular narrative—the formerly more famous husband stays at home while his wife seeks her own glory after years of playing second fiddle—a nod to, of all people, Hillary Clinton. I suppose I could see that in there if I wanted to (I dont; Im tired), but Im more inclined to see the movie as simply a retrograde role-reversal comedy than some sort of muddled and unneeded political allegory.
I say retrograde because, well, it is—this trope of the bumbling dad overwhelmed by the complexities of keeping house and raising children, while seeing his true place as out there in the world doing big things. Its an old idea, but its also not one thats yet become entirely foreign to heterosexual parents. And so Bird delves in, teasing at this familiar stuff winningly and squarely. Squarely enough that the plot given to teenage Violet (Sarah Vowell) involves heartsickness about a boy at a school, while her baby brother Jack-Jack emerges as the potential-laden apple of his fathers eye. Maybe Im shadowboxing, swinging at problems that arent really there. But from a certain angle, Incredibles 2 looks a little too slavish to creaky conventions.
Ah well. What ensues at home is nonetheless a frequent riot; even the mildly clichéd stuff with Violet and her crush is cute. But Jack-Jack gets the best stuff, particularly an extended and utterly bonkers backyard fight with a feisty raccoon in which Bird imbues the movies rollicking, round-edged verve with almost shocking jolts of violence. Its silly and a little dangerous and really funny, walking just to the edge of where the rules of the movie should lie and giving us a little raspberry. Meanwhile, Elastigirl/Helen sure is having fun out there as the new front-facing spokeswoman for safe, competent superheroism. Bird gives her a terrifically, uh, elastic chase sequence involving another doomed mag-lev train, ingeniously employing a vehicle called an Elastibike. Helen then finds herself on an intriguing little investigation, one shadowy and sinster enough that I had to avert my eyes during one scene. Yes, I was scared during a Pixar movie.
Incredibles 2 is that kind of full-bodied picture, engaging and inventive and rendered with muscle. I suppose my only real issues with it are the same things that vaguely bother me about almost all Pixar movies: its almost too slick, too assured, too cute and clever. (Is the word for all of this “smug”?) Thats a wan critique to make if you cant point to anything specific that bothered you beyond a movie seeming too confident, but there it is. Incredibles 2, like so many other wonderments from this premier animation house, left a little pebble in my shoe, a pea under the mattress, that kept me from fully embracing it. Maybe its the whiff of stale gender politics wafting off the movies domestic comedy. Or its the stain of all that Atlas Shrugged stuff lingering from the first film—and not challenged by the second.
Whatever it is, I laughed out loud more during Incredibles 2 than I do at most movies. I felt real swells of adrenalin during its finely choreographed digital stunt spectaculars. And yet . . . I found it hard to truly love something so seamless, so sure of its superiority. Maybe Im just one of the jealous, petty regular folks who wishes these superheroes werent so super, that theyd keep their innate light under a bushel. Maybe Im the real Underminer. For those not quite as predisposed to grouchiness—or those more inclined to embrace ethical egoism—Incredibles 2 ought to offer everything you liked about the first movie, with a bit of the surprise stripped away. This sequel has a richer, more intricate gleam than its predecessor—14 years have done a lot for animation technology—but it still whizzes and glides across the same architecture. Its a blast—and then its gone.
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