After 14 years, Brad Bird and Pixar’s superpowered family is back in action and it feels so good.
You know it’s crazy, right? To help my family, I gotta leave it. To fix the law, I gotta break it.
It’s hard for me to remember now, but the original Incredibles might be the only film I’ve seen four times in the theater. My family just kept going back, and we loved it every time. This was 2004 — four years before the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or The Dark Knight, and just a few months after Spider-Man 2, which had been hailed in many corners as the best superhero film to date. Audiences were far from the saturation point for this stuff. Most of that sweet, sweet intellectual property had yet to be mined at all.
Brad Bird’s second career feature showcased imaginative animation and technical wizardry in a retro-cool mid-60s aesthetic (also three years before Mad Men), supporting a few delightful action sequences and gut-busting humor. But what really set the film apart were the family dynamics at its center. Like how The Americans was a show about marriage that happened to involve espionage, The Incredibles was about parenting while saving the world. It didn’t matter that the Parr family’s powers were loosely borrowed from the Fantastic Four, because we believed in those relationships first. The film’s villain, Syndrome, was also the canary in the coal mine for the kind of toxic fandom that is an epidemic now. (That he was at least in part based on then-geek’s-geek Harry Knowles now carries its own sad irony.) How could a sequel, no matter how earnestly demanded — including by yours truly — ever hope to top it?
Well, it can’t. But it can come remarkably close, as Incredibles 2 does.
Picking up immediately where we left off fourteen years ago, Incredibles 2 finds the Parrs doing battle with John Ratzenberger’s Underminer, who is able to do a lot of damage with one giant drill — so much so that the fallout from stopping him leaves the family without the safety net provided by Mr. Dicker (Jonathan Banks, taking over for the late Bud Luckey). They have two weeks paid on their motel rental, and then it’s back to a “normal” life in a world that mistrusts supers more than ever.
An opportunity suddenly presents itself in the form of Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk, so it’s just Better Call Saul all over this thing), an industrialist who idolizes the supers and wants to help the public understand their value. He and his tech-savvy sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener), see Elastigirl as their “best play” to reinstate the public’s trust, much to Bob’s chagrin. Now while Helen is riding off on her cool new motorbike and thwarting terrorist attacks, Mr. Incredible is at home with the kids, who all have their own problems — Violet’s relationship with crush Tony has been thwarted by a memory wipe; Dash needs help with Algebra; Jack-Jack…well, there’s a lot going on with Jack-Jack.
The role reversal is fun, but that’s just one of many ideas Brad Bird’s script is juggling. Bob, jealous of his wife’s exciting new job, wrestles with tamping down old chauvinist impulses about who should be in a supersuit and who should be the caregiver. When Helen seizes her moment in the spotlight after once chiding Bob for “reliving the glory days,” it’s not hypocrisy as much as it’s an acknowledgment that she was never allowed the same freedom and attention he was.
There’s also a lot of (terrifyingly) prescient talk about “illegal” populations and how to deal with unjust laws. Helen trusts in their institutions to eventually do the right thing, “otherwise there’d be chaos.” “Which is exactly what we have!” Bob retorts. Should their kids have to grow up in a world where they have to keep the truest part of themselves hidden because society sucks right now, or should Helen and Bob risk imprisonment to create a new world for them? It’s not typical “fate of the world” stuff, even as large things crash into other things, but a fight for their family’s identity.
Then there’s the film’s supervillian, the Screenslaver, who hypnotizes the populace while monologuing about their dependence on simulated reality. All of these messages are solid, but it’s a lot to coherently cram into a 118-minute family film, and it comes with the cost of some telegraphed plotting and underdeveloped character motivation. But there are two things that work like gangbusters, and they’re what made the first film so successful: the action, and the hilariously accurate portrait of on-the-ground parenting.
The first is Bird at his most inspired, especially when showing off Elastigirl’s versatility or when some of the new supers (including one, voiced by Sophia Bush, who can create portals) get into the mix. After the first Incredibles, Bird went on to demonstrate his action chops in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (which I loved), and original film Tomorrowland (which I liked, but it flopped anyway). While this film lacks a moment of truly cathartic joy like Dash realizing he can run on water, I2′s big sequences are more thrilling and smartly constructed than almost all of their live-action brethren, and certainly with better physical comedy.
The second strength, the family stuff, is what separates a great superhero film from a great film, period. Ultimately, Incredibles 2’s most memorable moments aren’t the derring-do, but scenes like Bob struggling to corral the infant Jack-Jack’s polymorphic powers — just wait for the raccoon fight — and his creeping fatigue and resignation is instantly recognizable. (That subplot also provides us with the glorious return of Edna Mode, who takes to cracking the Jack-Jack puzzle with glee.) All of the kids are allowed to come into their own here, and they seize control of the narrative when they’re needed the most. If the first film was about Bob and Helen coming to terms with their past, the second is squarely focused on their future, including seeing their own children as potential partners.
Even grading only against its predecessor, there’s nothing about Incredibles 2 that is unsatisfying. The setups and payoffs in Bird’s script are as airtight as you’d expect from top-shelf Pixar film. Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, and Sarah Vowell don’t skip a single beat in returning to these characters. Michael Giacchino delivers another great, jazzy, throwback score. It’s been a long, long wait, but between this and last fall’s Coco, Pixar is firing on all cylinders again. Let’s just not talk about Toy Story 4 yet, okay?
The film is preceded by Bao, directed by the first woman to helm a Pixar short, Domee Shi. It’s cute and emotional and a little bit alarming and way, way better than Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.
Updated Pixar Rankings:
- Toy Story 2
- The Incredibles
- Monsters, Inc.
- Inside Out
- Toy Story 3
- Finding Nemo
- Incredibles 2
- Toy Story
- Finding Dory
- A Bug’s Life
- Monsters University
- Cars 3
- The Good Dinosaur
- Cars 2