I’ve always felt that The Incredibles is among the most underrated of Pixar’s classics. It received rave reviews, to be sure, when it hit screens in 2004, but doesn’t seem to have achieved quite the staying power of the rest of the studio’s cream of the crop. The film was more grounded, more immediate than, say, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille or Wall-E and featured less whimsy. Perhaps this is part of why we’ve had to wait so long for the sequel, Incredibles 2. Brad Bird, director of both Incredibles films, is on record as saying he wanted to find a story he deemed “as good or better” than his first effort before moving forward with his second. Indeed, Incredibles 2 boasts quite a story, and tells it in a way that makes it hard to believe 14 years have passed since the previous movie. Until it doesn’t.
Incredibles 2 is more modernized. Issues of the responsibilities surrounding parents of maturing children in a dangerous world have been replaced with considerations of technology’s tentacle-hold on society and the continued subjugation of vibrant minority groups with much to offer to humanity. I appreciate the timeliness, but it isn’t done subtly, and creates an odd disconnect with the previous film.
This one starts exactly where the other left off, yet it soon becomes clear No. 2 inhabits a similarly new world. Perhaps this was inevitable and necessary, but the transition could’ve been handled more smoothly. Where the film maintains its core identity is in the Parr family, as lovably dysfunctional and painfully hilarious as always. The writing and voice work of these characters are so good that it exposes more clearly any and all weaknesses in the rest of the film. When the family was onscreen, I was hooked, experiencing the movie as if I was in it and loving every second. But when the film decided to zoom out and take a look at its greater context, I found myself asking questions.
For example, individuals with superhero powers are still, essentially, illegal. So much time and so many buzzwords are spent on the Supers, though, that I began to wonder who exactly they are meant to represent. It’s obvious they’re being used as the film’s Topical Allegory, but we’re not given much information or many parallels beyond the general “here’s another group of amazing people forced out of their own world and identities by a society unwilling to accommodate them.” Maybe that’s it? Are the Supers simply a blanket representation of all oppressed minorities? That would work, I guess. But these would be broad strokes, especially for a film whose family dynamics are painted so finely.
Luckily, this part of the story isn’t a major one. Bird did indeed find a heck of a story, and the characters are the true strength of this film (and its emerging franchise). So it’s a good thing that Incredibles 2 focuses so intently on them and their new mission. The cliffhanger of the original Incredibles is dealt with but dispatched rather quickly, but from that point forward, Incredibles 2 effortlessly spins a complex and mysterious tale with so much forward momentum that it’s impossible to lose interest.
Each member of the Parr family, particularly Mrs. Incredible aka Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), has a personal arc that’s somehow tied to the plot of the movie, and some of these connections are conceived and presented rather brilliantly. Each character’s story is so well-written and so appropriate that the movie successfully shifts this family’s narrative from the subject of a fantastic stand-alone feature to a franchise of real ongoing potential. Jack-Jack (uncredited) comes into his own (or “owns” as the case may be); a precisely recast Dash (Huck Milner) learns how to rise to more serious occasions; and Violet (Sarah Vowell) grows through her struggles with both family and a new love interest. But it’s Mr. and Mrs. Incredible (the former again voiced by Craig T. Nelson) who get the strongest stories here, navigating important, complicated issues together. Bird finds a way to set these two up as antagonists for each other, but in a way that can only be solved if they work together.
The quality and maturity of writing on display here reminds us of what Pixar does best: making great movies with real value for both kids and their parents. Incredibles 2 is an unusually serious movie (the ending of the first Incredibles is recontextualized as a triumph for the family but the beginning of a poor decision) with real personal stakes and bold, intelligent dialogue. Some of the most spellbinding moments of the film are spent on the two parents, sitting by a motel pool or trying to find connection through a phone call, just talking about life and how they intend to deal with it together. Big words match the big ideas in these scenes, and often it begins to feel as if what we’re watching is straight out of a family drama for grown-ups, before you remember that the scene is animated.
The heart of Incredibles 2 is found within the Parr family, and there it shines. But the rest of the film isn’t quite perfect. The film’s aptly named villain, Screenslaver, is better conceived than rendered (good design, unique attitude and abilities) but without much of a cause beyond a few throwaway lines about technology that are never addressed, and the overall structure of the movie is such that the thing feels streamlined to the point of emptiness. Every single moment that didn’t have the most obvious of connections to the plot or goals of the script seems to have been cut, to the extent that the movie is a story absent of a larger world. Almost everyone from the first film shows up here, but some for only a scene or two. For example, Edna Mode (voiced by Brad Bird himself) seems present in Incredibles 2 to bring laughs and not much else, which is a shame, especially since the film finds significant time to introduce strong new characters such as the perfectly cast Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his too-wise sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener).
We don’t get time to sit, to cognate and inhabit the world and, specifically, this family the way the previous film found time to allow. The pacing is such that I didn’t realize the movie was over until it ended. At 118 minutes, Incredibles 2 is the longest Pixar film to date, yet I honestly think it could and should have been longer. As it stands, the movie is about too many things: the fallout from the previous film, the subjugation of Supers, the further subjugation and struggles with the empowering of women both in and outside of that community, the dangerous ubiquity of technology, the challenges of raising a family, the challenges of passing the torch to one’s spouse (particularly from husband to wife), the problems when oppressed (or emotionally unstable) individuals radicalize and start looking for revenge. All of these ideas really are compelling, and a joy to see in a film like this one, but they end up being utterly tangential to the plot, which is disappointing. Once the plot resolves itself, the film ends. The budding themes are left sitting there, with no more time to grow, and I imagine a lot was left on the editing room floor.
Still, the film has far more strengths than weaknesses. We get a smattering of new superheroes to get to know, and while some are certainly more promising than others, the good ones really are good. One Super by the name of Voyd (Sophia Bush) gets by far the most screen time, and rightly so; her power is an interesting one, and it is employed creatively and effectively throughout the movie.
Beyond this, the animation in general allows for some very well-constructed action sequences, as well as moments of incredible beauty. Where The Incredibles was somewhat overlooked perhaps for being relatively mundane, Incredibles 2 pushes against that expectation with truly out-there design and jaw-droppingly gorgeous animation. You’ll get skies and architecture the likes of which you’ve never seen elsewhere in Hollywood, to the point where it’s almost distracting how downright pretty this movie is.
At a thematic turning point of the film, Helen Parr’s “I don’t think so” interview from the beginning of the first film is re-shown here to stunningly appropriate effect, and the film’s continuity with its progenitor is overall fantastic (notwithstanding one oddly different-looking Frozone, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson). The soundtrack is as good as ever, and in general, all faults aside, there is absolutely no fatigue present in Incredibles 2, no moment where you’d be allowed to question if the sequel was really necessary. These are achievements, rare achievements, and shouldn’t go unappreciated. Much like the Incredibles movies themselves.