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Film Review: The Incredibles 2

The Incredibles 2 (2018; Directed by Brad Bird)

14 years may have passed in our world since the release of Brad Bird’s expert Pixar-produced animated superhero film The Incredibles, but for the titular family of semi-secret Supers (as superheroes are known in this world), not even five minutes have elapsed. The Incredibles 2 picks up exactly where the first film left off, as the Parrs suit up to battle the massive burrowing machines of the villainous Underminer (voiced by Pixar lucky charm John Ratzenberger) which threaten their city of Metroville. But the film also picks up on other teased threads at the conclusion of that much-praised prior installment: awkward eldest daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) getting up the nerve to ask out her classmate Tony Rydinger (Michael Bird), the unpredictably emerging superpowers of baby boy Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), and the passage of laws outlawing Supers from using their powers openly, for the safety of society.

The confrontation with the Underminer does not exactly go swimmingly, with more than a little architectural collateral damage resulting despite the best efforts of matriarch Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Violet and her speedster brother Dash (Huckleberry Milner), and ice-blasting family friend Lucius Best/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson). The mole-ish villain also manages to escape after a fight with super-strong patriarch Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson). The whole costly affair simply confirms for government officials and law enforcement that Supers must remain illegal, lest further catastrophes follow.

But in its aftermath, the Parrs are approached by corporate telecommunications heirs and tycoon siblings Winston and Evelyn Deavor (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener), who in tribute to their late superhero-supporting father want to fit the generally less-destructive Elastigirl (studies have been done and data compiled to support that conclusion, to Bob’s ego-disappointment) with a body-camera and record her heroic acts as part of a PR campaign to rehabilitate the image of Supers and get them legalized again. In an inversion of The Incredibles, then, Helen goes out to recapture her youth and don the supersuit while Bob holds down the fort in their well-appointed DevTech-provided home (only the tip of the iceberg of the film’s flashy Mid-Century futurist design). They each face challenges, Helen from a mind-hypnotizing terrorist called the Screenslaver who may be more than he seems to be, and Bob from Violet’s boy problems, Dash’s math homework, and Jack-Jack’s barely-manageable explosion of super-abilities.

Like its predecessor, The Incredibles 2 builds both its conflict and its humour on this contrast of the concerns of domestic family life with the elaborate Super fantasies of its action sequences. Conceived and executed by the masterful Brad Bird, these latter scenes are of course prodigiously exciting (heightened immensely by Michael Giacchino’s pulse-quickening Bond-esque score), dense with furiously clever details and gags; the focus on Elastigirl and her far more, well, elastic abilities jacks up the speed and dynamism, especially during a motorbike pursuit of a runaway monorail. The portal-opening powers of a supporting Super (and nervous Elastigirl fangirl) named Voyd (Sophia Bush) also open up possibilities of movement and change that Bird takes full advantage of during the climactic sequence on a runaway yacht.

That said, the best action scene (certainly the funniest, at least) in The Incredibles 2 might well be Jack-Jack’s running battle in the family’s backyard with a feisty raccoon. Jack-Jack’s emerging powers also draw in one of the first film’s truest oddball delights, the inspired, eccentric fashion designer to Supers Edna Mode (voiced by Brad Bird himself), who babysits him and fashions a suit and supporting tech to allow the increasingly harried Bob to handle his little ball of (sometimes quite literal) explosiveness. One is left feeling that there is too little of Edna Mode, but whether the character would work so well in larger doses is debatable.

Other elements of The Incredibles 2 are worthy of positive note. There are numerous fine voice performance moments, not only from the long-underrated Hunter as the to-the-forefront Helen, but also from the historian and public radio broadcaster Vowell‘s distinctive and more-layered work with Violet to Nelson’s hilarious insomniac readings of baby-calming talk to Isabella Rossellini as a Supers-friendly ambassador. Keener is always good, but especially notable is Bob Odenkirk as her character’s sales-pitching brother, his persuasion-talking gestures and mannerisms (so familiar to fans of his work as Saul Goodman/Jimmy McGill in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul) so lovingly and accurately rendered into CG animation by the world-class Pixar animators.

Still, despite its copious entertainments and fine craftsmanship displaying the technological advancement in computer animation since 2004’s The Incredibles, one is left feeling that this sequel is a lesser product in comparison to that species of modern classic. The Incredibles rendered the Parrs’ relatable human anxieties into their thematic struggle with a fanboy-turned-resentful-supervillain and expanded those ideas into larger political questions (which some critics read as reflecting Nietzschean principles or even Randian Objectivism) about the place of the individual in relation to society. The Incredibles 2‘s political ideas are instead expressed most notably in a single soapbox-ascending dinner table argument between Bob and Helen: should they teach their kids that they ought to obey laws, no matter how unjust they may find them to be, or to resist and even break those laws if they think it right to do so?

If this is Bird’s core political dilemma this time around, however, it is not productively or effectively incorporated into the film’s narrative or thematic development. Supers are outlawed, but Elastigirl’s heroism slowly wears down public opinion until it comes to support repeal of their ban, with a twist in the villainous plot to uphold that ban to be overcome by family superpower collaboration. Bird stabs fitfully in other directions, too, as Helen and Evelyn discuss the glass ceilings of sexism in their respective professions. Most egregiously out-of-touch on Bird’s part is a rant from the Screenslaver villain (ultimately a fake-out figure, but I shan’t go and spoil) about our contemporary society’s hypnotic enslavement to digital screens, which comes across as not only a bit of a fuddy-duddy old man complaint but also a fairly hypocritical one coming from a crafter of intelligently-crafted but fundamentally diversionary entertainment that will, by design, itself play on millions of those bemoaned screens.

The Incredibles 2 is supremely, even occasionally transcendentally, diversionary, but unlike its predecessor never really rises above that level. Following a commercial and artistic dip in Tomorrowland, Brad Bird returns to the totalizing visual and motion control of animation, and The Incredibles 2 is frequently an impressive demonstration of his confident and sometimes even audacious mastery of that medium. But Tomorrowland also displayed a grandstanding pedantry that wore thin very quickly and bogged down Bird’s clockwork inventiveness and big-dreamer optimism. The Incredibles 2 overcompensates on the ideas score, megaphoning a political argument or two but consigning the content of those arguments to background colour rather than enfolding them productively into the story’s core conflicts. This is quite often an extremely fun and unquestionably well-made movie, but recent, real blockbuster high-points (especially in the artistically expanding superhero genre) are more adept at trojan-horsing more resonant ideological and emotional concepts into that carnival-ride package. The Incredibles 2 is set in a fashionably old-fashioned fantasy world, but it’s also subtly old-fashioned in relation to our real world, and it shows.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. March 22, 2019 at 9:28 am

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