It might be hard to remember now, but writer-director Brad Bird’s The Incredibles seemed revolutionary when it came out in 2004, back when superheroes were just starting to gain a foothold at the movies. (Yes, we had X-Men and Spider-Man and Blade and Hellboy, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe was years away, and Batman Begins wouldn’t arrive for another year.) Here was a film that managed to have fun with everything goofy about superheroes while still celebrating them as icons of American popular culture and even treating their inner lives with some seriousness. And it did so in a way that fused an angular, stylized mid-century design aesthetic with the freewheeling fluidity and visual wit of Pixar.
Since then, the hip look that The Incredibles popularized has been reproduced in countless other animated films, most notably the Despicable Me series. Meanwhile, the idea of a superhero movie that pokes fun at itself has become strangely ubiquitous. (With the sensibility of 2008’s Iron Man guiding the way, Marvel has cannily synergized and packaged the very idea of irreverence.) Even the throbbing, jazzy Michael Giacchino score for The Incredibles, so refreshing in 2004, now echoes through the soundtracks for any number of pictures. That’s especially since the supremely talented Giacchino, known back then largely as a composer for video games and TV shows, has since graduated to Marvel, Star Wars, Star Trek and Jurassic World movies, as well as more Pixar titles.
Which is all just a long-winded way of asking: How exactly could someone reproduce all that, 14 years later? Or at least find an exciting new way to be ahead-of-the-curve, some zeitgeisty oomph that will raise Incredibles 2 above the fray? Should Bird even try?
In a general sense, the new film mostly reproduces the template of the original. A superhero family, hiding in a world that believes it has little need for superheroes, finds itself faced with a villain who is targeting them personally. When one parent — this time, Mom (Elastigirl, voiced by Holly Hunter) — gets duped by the bad guys, the rest of the family comes to the rescue. Dad (Mr. Incredible, voiced by Craig T. Nelson), goes first, followed by frustrated superkids Violet (Sarah Vowell) and Dash (Huck Millner), along with baby Jack-Jack, who the family thinks doesn’t have superpowers — but, of course, he does.
There are up-to-date variations within the familiar conceit. Now, a slick young billionaire (voiced by Bob Odenkirk) has a plan to make superheroes popular (and legal) again by televising their exploits, and chooses Elastigirl over Mr. Incredible as the face of this new campaign — relegating hubby to the role of primary caregiver, stranded at home with the kids in a Mr. Mom situation. Of course, Mr. Incredible doesn’t take to the idea well, jealously congratulating his wife on her superhero success and growing TV fame while grinding his teeth. The funny gender reversal will surely resonate, though Mr. Incredible’s embittered chauvinism seems more convenient to the filmmakers’ point-making than organic to the character. Still, the spectacle of him exhaustedly and anxiously dealing with his wild kids and their many needs is both delightful and devilishly accurate; Pixar’s not-so-secret secret has always been that they understand parenting better than anyone else who makes movies for children. And Incredibles 2 is at its best — which is to say, its funniest and most exciting — when it tackles the internal dynamics of the family itself.
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The supposed villain also has a plan that speaks to our times. A mysterious figure named Screenslaver wreaks havoc by hypnotizing people through their screens, purportedly in order to condemn our screen-obsessed culture and our willingness to “replace true experience with simulations.” Again, topical! But it’s a topicality of the box-checking kind, more dutiful than inspired.
That too is surprising, because The Incredibles was the philosophical outlaw of the Pixar filmography. It dared to indict a society that refused to acknowledge that some people were special than the rest of us; “If everyone’s super, then no one is!” was the line that reverberated, an alarming blast of Ayn Randian pseudo-objectivism in a mainstream family-friendly movie. But in truth, the idea hearkened back even further: At times, the original played like a cartoony update of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, a tale of a great general brought low to appease and suck up to an undeserving public, a wrong-way violation in the Great Chain of Being. Agree or disagree with Bird’s thinking, that thesis certainly gave The Incredibles an unpredictable, free-radical vitality — turning it into an entertainment that dared to challenge our assumptions, even as it thrilled and charmed.
I won’t step far into spoiler territory but can report that similar ideas float around in Incredibles 2, this time having to do with a society that relies on superheroes even as it believes it must scorn them. Alas, that sensibility is confined to rote lines of dialogue and obligatory motivations rather than woven into the narrative and design fabric of the film. Early on, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl have an intriguing dinner-table debate over whether to abide by the strictures of an unjust society. (“If laws are unjust there are laws to change them. Otherwise, it’d be chaos.” “Which is exactly what we have!”) You might expect that such a philosophical dispute would then shape the narrative action and the characters’ choices the rest of the movie, but you’d be wrong.
Even so, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy myself. The action scenes may be broadly predictable, but they still offer rare humor, verve and visual invention. There are new superheroes, funny ones. (One guy is named Reflux: “Medical condition or superpower … you decide!”) And while Incredibles 2 rarely treads new stylistic or thematic ground, what it lacks in cohesion or originality it makes up for with a remorseless willingness to entertain. I’m told that certain societies have a word for such phenomena. They call them “sequels.”