'Incredibles 2': The art of fun
Following up “The Incredibles” was surely easier said than done. Writer/director Brad Bird’s 2004 film is among the Pixar cream, a critical and commercial classic, and a benchmark in the superhero, animation and action genres. To create a sequel is both an obvious crowd-pleasing decision and an impossible task.
But Bird, returning to Pixar 11 years after helming the wonderful “Ratatouille,” pulls it off with panache. “Incredibles 2” is wildly entertaining: visually dynamic, meticulous in its aesthetic design, action-packed, character-rich, and very, very funny. Comparison to the first movie is unavoidable; the sequel isn’t quite as fresh and inspired, it drops most of its spoofier elements (probably wise at this stage in the saturated superhero-cinema game), and can be loosely plotted. But this is pedantic nitpicking, and to continue on that track would be outright misanthropy.
“Incredibles 2” picks up immediately after its predecessor ends. The Underminer, a villain piloting a massive subterranean drill-tank, is attacking the city, and the Parr family, a.k.a. the Incredibles, slap on their masks. Beefy-strong Mr. Incredible (voice of Craig T. Nelson) and stretchy-limbed Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) leap into action, but not before instructing their super kids, forcefield-generator daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) and supersonic speedster son Dash (Huck Milner), to take turns protecting baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile). They call in their longtime ice-blasting ally Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) for assistance.
The subsequent sequence is a complex orchestration of comedy and thrilling heroic feats occurring in above- and below-ground set pieces; the film concludes with a similarly breathless threat to the well-being of a metropolitan locale and our noble protagonists. This is Bird knowing what his massive built-in, cross-generational audience wants, and executing it with skilled proficiency.
In between, he indulges a flashier, more delightfully experimental palette, abundant with elements of classic sci-fi and mid-century design flourishes (see also: his cult-classic animated tale “The Iron Giant”). In one extended sequence, Elastigirl navigates her Elasticycle through a crowded urban locale, inventively manipulating her pliable physique to stop a runaway elevated commuter train after its engineer is hypnotized by a villain we soon learn is dubbed The Screenslaver. In another, she confronts the same bad guy in a room bedecked with disorienting strobe lights, engaging in rousing, electric hand-to-hand.
Elastigirl enjoys significant screen time in the movie. The plot makes her the focus of a campaign to reaffirm the value of superheroes in society - as you may recall from the first film, “supers” were outlawed after the government deemed them more harmful than helpful. An earnest and wealthy benefactor, Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), bankrolls the venture, backed by the technology invented by his sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener).
Elastigirl’s finesse is considered politically palatable, which means Mr. Incredible has to mothball his brute strength - and, notably, his dated sense of manhood - and stay home with the kids. He can clobber the beefiest cretins on the planet, but Dash’s math homework? Violet’s angst over her junior-high crush? The infant Jack-Jack’s myriad, unpredictable and out-of-control emerging superpowers - as acute a metaphor for parenting perils as you’ll likely see? The big guy withers.
Speaking of, Jack-Jack’s scrap with a raccoon - occurring as his exhausted dad snoozes - is an uproarious moment, delightful and clever, stacking up laughs like chips in front of Vegas’ greatest poker stud.
“Incredibles 2” is Bird’s return-to-form after his 2015 live-action high-concept stumble, “Tomorrowland” (a passion project he famously pursued after turning down a “Star Wars” movie). It doesn’t have quite the subtextual richness of its predecessor, which isn’t to say it’s devoid of ideas. Bird weaves in discussions of subverting unjust laws, gender-role reversals, our dependence on and obsession with screen-based technology, and universal domestic struggles, which are framed in the context of even the most extraordinary family.
But these ideas are more at the service of wows, not whys, pointing towards Bird’s goal of pure entertainment. He’s not sacrificing substance, but rather lightening the load, considering the trend is to burden superheroes with the weight of the world, galaxy and/or universe. The two “Incredibles” are the type of well-rounded features that beg to be watched again and again, again and again.
As is tradition for Pixar releases, the feature is preceded by a cartoon short. “Bao” ventures into a previously unexplored realm of anthropomorphism, bringing a dumpling to life, mewling as a Chinese woman nearly murders it with her teeth. She then adopts it as her own, prompting odd comedy, melancholy tones and a moment of riveting drama, before a head-scratching conclusion that’s more puzzling than suggestive.
MPAA rating: PG for action sequences and some brief mild language
Voice cast: Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner
Director: Brad Bird
Run time: 118 minutes