OK Brad Bird, let’s try this again. A few years after the overly-preachy and under-developed dross that was Tomorrowland, Bird has gone back to his roots in animation, for one of the most long-awaited CGI films in the history of the medium: a follow-up to Pixar’s 2004 smash hit The Incredibles, made in the middle of Pixar’s pre-Disney infallibility when it came to what they were producing. While there was certainly some eye-raising aspects of The Incredibles, in terms of its central message (more below) it was still an a amazing mesh of superhero action and family drama, taking place in a glowing tribute to a by-gone age of story-telling. Did it need a sequel? No, not really, and we all know the primary reason why this follow-up is being made (“Sorry, but there’s profit to be had!”). But that doesn’t mean it has to be bad, like, say, Cars 2 was bad. It could be good, like, say, Finding Dory was…kind of good. But let’s think positive: Bird is back, the cast is back, and even with a 14-year gap, I couldn’t say I wasn’t interested in seeing more of the Parr family. So, was Disney Pixar’s third attempt at a sequel worth the effort, or are we back to the fears of the mouse squeezing the towel dry?
The Parr family of “supers” – Bob/Mr Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner) and Jack-Jack – find themselves down and out after some serious collateral damage in their last escapade. Abandoned by the government, respite comes in the form of Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), a telecommunications giant who wants to bring supers back into the public eye in a positive way. While Bob becomes a stay-at-home Dad trying to solve a multitude of domestic problems, Elastigirl sets out to change perception of supers, coming into conflict with a brain-washing villain named “Screenslaver”.
There’s some good and some bad with Incredibles 2. The good is that it’s fun, its enjoyable, it has a serious heart to it, and it looks great, just like the first one. The bad is that it is just like the first one.
After an exhilarating opening action scene, a direct continuation of the closing moments of The Incredibles, Bird slams down hard on the re-set button, putting his super-powered family back where they were at the beginning of the whole affair: superheroes are banned, Mr Incredible is in a dead-end, but along comes a benefactor who may or may not have an ulterior motive. The film attempts to change things up by doing some gender reversal, with Elastigirl now the one doing the superheroing while Mr Incredible stays at home, but the narrative and the plot-beats are all very similar here, right down to the antagonist, a populist equaliser who wants humanity to take responsibility for its own problems instead of counting on supers to take care of everything for them, motivated by a childhood grudge fuelled by the perceived failure of superheroes in their own lives.
The other major holdover, and major negative, is the streak of elitism evident in every other scene. The Incredibles made you a tad uncomfortable with its apparent message of “Don’t let exceptional people be held back by jealous normies”, and the sequel just keeps carrying that ball, with superhero bans portrayed as a lazy approach from governments who “don’t understand people who do good just because its right”, that is downright prejudiced (in the first, retired supers had secret identities, now they’re “illegal”). That vigilantism is a problem in and of itself, and that tricky issue of collateral damage never really gets addressed, are evidenced of a world-view that you can’t help but be a bit creeped out by, and Bird has priors in this.
Incredibles 2 lacks the shrill preachiness of Tomorrowland, which is good, but it can’t escape the notion that it is a propaganda film for an almost Randian message, with some shallow commentary on media narratives thrown in all-too-briefly. The person who wants to remove supers from the equation and get people away from a passive acceptance of government oversight and Panem et Circensus entertainment is the villain, and there are other, spoiler-ish, anti-innovation themes that are eye-raising. Suffice to say that Incredibles 2 subscribes to the idea that the inventors, the thinkers and the long-term planners can take a back seat to the sellers, the publicists and the “Punch the problem away” crowd. Perhaps the most unnerving message is one positively portrayed character’s motto of “Make Superheroes Legal Again” which in its similarity to modern-day slogans can’t be anything but intentional. That Bird is apparently comfortable drawing such lines, and playing in to the nostalgic zeitgeists’ need for morally and legally untouchable, strongmen (and women, in fairness) to handle our problems, is so profoundly off-putting that it may well threaten the long-term view of this sequel.
But where it saves itself, and I regret to say this to a certain extent, is when it focuses on Bob Parr, stuck, or so he sees it, at home with the kinds while his wife does the do-gooding. The film’s decision to let Helen Parr be the actual hero for the majority of its running time, in a succession of well-choreographed and presented action sequences, is a timely one, but it’s also where its aping its predecessor the most in terms of narrative and plot beats. It’s good to see the matriarch of the family in that role, but it only counts for so much. Back in the Parr household, we get a genuinely engaging and moving character arc for Bob, who starts out just holding the fort as best he can before his inevitable return to spandex-clad crime-fighting, and gradually turns it into his own singular battle to be a better father for his children, as critical a fight as any he has done with his fists. Violet has boy troubles, Dash struggles with homework, Jack-Jack exhibits a new superpower every five minutes; the struggles of a stay-at-home parent form the emotional core of Incredibles 2, in scenes where Bob stays awake at night refreshing his own knowledge of math to help his son, or, blundering, tries to orchestrate situations where his daughter is in the same room as her crush. It can’t be understated how important this aspect of 2 was: without it, the film would be veering on irredeemable.
The film works its way up to a predictable third act, with not-so-shocking “twists” regards the villains identity, a family coming together and, to the surprise of no-one, things essentially back to where we were at the end of the first film when the credits roll. But I don’t want to come across too critical, because 2 is still quite enjoyable: it’s fun, in the way that only Pixar can be, having a ball with individual scenes and set-pieces while the film’s actual story trundles along. Jack-Jack takes on a raccoon is an amazing send-up of super-hero battles; superhero suit designer Edna finds the perfect test subject; Dash wrecks the family’s new home playing with its advanced furniture; and Samuel L. Jackson’s Frozone returns, still bickering with his off-screen wife. 2 has a sense of comfortableness with what it is and with the extent of what it wants to do, which is to entertain an audience that fell in love with the universe 14 years ago, and now wants a taste of the dreaded nostalgia bait. It does that through sequences that have a feel of “cutting-room floor” from the first one, but they work.
The voice cast is all doing good work here, with the family all slipping back into their roles with ease, and Odenkirk providing the best of the new faces. VA is never going to be an issue for Pixar, with even the worst of their back catalogue having good vocal performances. On the audio side of things, Michael Giacchino’s score is obviously not all that different from what came before, but you’ll never not find me enthralled by this 50’s/60’s-inspired soft jazz superhero music.
There probably will never be a Pixar film that doesn’t look good, their strength has always been to combine the aesthetically beautiful with good-quality storytelling. 2 continues the by-now familiar trend of good looking Pixar productions, with a repeat of that excellent old-school aesthetic mixed with more modern elements, taking inspiration from how the people of the 60’s thought the world of 2018 would look. Bird’s probably also taken some inspiration from the wealth of superhero films that have emerged in the interregnum, in sequences like the Underminer chase, or superhero battles that run the gauntlet from punch-fests to portals to molten lava being thrown up by the appropriately named “Reflux”. Among the exciting chases and exchange of superpowered bolts of lightning, there are occasionally some more adventurous experiments, like an Elastigirl/Screenslaver fight taking place in a cage, or the aforementioned Jack-Jack/raccoon combat, that provides an excellent mix of levity and good-natured parody at the same time.
Incredibles 2 will safely nestle into the lower end of the Pixar collection, somewhere ahead of the rest of the Cars franchise, and significantly below its predecessor and others. It isn’t a bad film at all, in fact I enjoyed it a lot. It’s funny, it’s inventive at points, it makes some good choices on gender and it retains a strong family drama plot at its heart. But it’s also very derivative of what came before, to the point that 2 has to be considered part and parcel of the nostalgia bait phenomena in film, even if it is a more-than-passable example. Bird and Pixar have tried hard here, that I can safely acknowledge, but it doesn’t appear that there is anything new to be said here. It would be for the best if Pixar, and Disney, moved on before this becomes another Cars, Planes or what else. For the present, fans of The Incredibles should enjoy the follow-up. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Paramount Animation and Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer).