With the notable (and infamous) exception of the Cars series, Pixar has an almost unreasonably strong track record with sequels. The Toy Story series wrote the book on how to craft meaningful new stories with existing characters in ways that don’t simply rehash the original, and Finding Dory shone a spotlight on one of Nemo’s most refreshing side characters. (Even Monsters University is thoroughly enjoyable, if comparatively unremarkable.) If there were any doubts about Incredibles 2 failing to follow in that tradition, they can be safely put to bed – one of Pixar’s greatest movies has yielded one of its finest follow-ups.
Picking up immediately after the end of the first Incredibles, superheroes are still illegal, but that doesn’t stop the superpowered Parr family – Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) – from foiling a plot by the Underminer (John Ratzenberger) to rob Metroville Bank. In the process, however, they cause more damage than the public and City Hall can tolerate; what limited government support they had left is revoked, and the Parrs are forced to remain underground.
However, a lifeline appears in the form of Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), a giddy telecommunications industrialist (and superhero fanboy) hoping to, in his clumsily-topical words, “make superheroes legal again.” His proposal: launch a PR campaign with Elastigirl at the center, using body-cams and market-friendly outfits to restore public trust in superheroes by using her as a case study. Despite some initial trepidation, they agree; after all, as Helen says, “maybe it’s [her] turn” to work while Bob takes care of the kids.
Brad Bird hasn’t directed an animated feature since Ratatouille in 2007 – he’s been busy peddling his considerable ambitions via the best Mission: Impossible movie and the flawed but ambitious Tomorrowland – but he glides effortlessly back into animation without missing a single step. What Bird does with the space and rhythms of animation is nothing short of miraculous, scenes of intimate familial warmth crackling with the same verve as the most high-octane action setpieces. The world’s never looked better either, Bird and crew gleefully doubling down on more Ken Adams-inspired production design you can shake a Mad Men DVD at, anchored by Michael Giacchino’s dizzily swinging score.
Amongst all the amped-up ‘60s modernism, however, Incredibles 2 is far from an empty reprise – like the best Pixar sequels, it gives its characters new, intriguing angles to play within their established world. With Helen off to work, Bob is thrust into the role of stay-at-home dad, one for which he’s woefully unprepared, especially when dealing with Jack-Jack’s newly-adopted array of volatile superpowers. He’s flustered with Dash’s homework (“When did they change math?!”), endlessly exhausted from chasing a colicky Jack-Jack, and embarrassingly overenthusiastic when trying to help Violet rekindle an infatuation with a high school boy, who’s unhelpfully mind-wiped after he discovers her secret identity.
Sure, this kind of gender role-reversal would read as hopelessly sitcom-esque or dated in the wrong hands – realistically, many dads in Incredibles 2’s audience have long since made the transition to taking on traditionally female roles in the family. But Incredibles 2 sweetly delivers the necessary message that parenting is a job for dads too. (To be fair, even the most patient Misters Mom would struggle to keep up with the chaos that Jack-Jack leaves in his adorable, babbling wake.)
While Bob’s struggles are great fun, Incredibles 2’s smartest move is to make it Elastigirl’s movie through and through. Given this unprecedented opportunity to shine on her own for the first time, Helen’s journey through the film is downright liberating – for once, she gets to be the big hero, the one everyone idolizes (including Sophia Bush’s Voyd, a budding young superhero who gets flustered around her hero). Hunter is clearly having a blast in the voice booth, juggling Helen’s guilt at not being around for her family with the freedom that comes from finally being able to stand on your own.
Thankfully, the first film’s Randian sentiments are tamped down considerably in the sequel; sure, superheroes are still the ubermenschen unfairly stifled by the rest of mediocre society, but it’s refreshingly complicated by the motives of the film’s villain, the sinister (and mysterious) Screenslaver. While the character itself becomes a smokescreen for larger twists down the road, their motivation raises some interesting questions: in the Screenslaver’s mind, superheroes are a crutch, a nifty way for a complacent public to pass the buck so they don’t have to solve society’s problems themselves. It’s hardly the major focus of the film’s themes, but it’s a necessary wrench in the works to keep the emphasis squarely on the heartwarming super-family.
It’s perhaps too much to say that Incredibles 2 is the perfect antidote to our modern glut of superhero flicks, but it is a delightful change of pace from the dourness of Infinity War and the nihilistic snark of Deadpool 2. It’s as bright and visually inventive as its predecessor, and finds cheeky new outlets for Bird’s unbridled cinematic sensibilities. Bird lets his characters breathe, but makes time for scene-stealing setpieces like Jack-Jack’s midnight scuffle with a sinister raccoon. Incredibles 2 hardly shakes the foundations of what a superhero movie should be, but it’s a raucous crowd-pleaser that serves up enough mouthwateringly beautiful eye candy to delight kids and grownups alike. And isn’t that the least one can ask for from Pixar?
(Oh, and don’t miss the short preceding it, Domee Shi’s “Bao.” It’s an elegant tearjerker about the complex intermingling of food, culture, and family. And, like Sanjay’s Super Team before it, it’s also the latest in Pixar’s admirable recent efforts to use their shorts as opportunities for artists of color to directly create works about their culture for a mass audience.)