Warning: The following review contains spoilers for Incredibles 2. Proceed with care.
Pixar sequels usually spend a long time in gestation. It was 11 years between the release of the second and third Toy Story films. Then it was 12 years between Monsters Inc. and Monsters University. Then we waited 13 years between Nemo and Dory. And now the studio has broken its record yet again, with a 14-year gap between The Incredibles and Incredibles 2.
On the one hand, the lengthy gaps between films allows more time for brainstorming, crafting, and fine-tuning the sequel, insuring that it makes for a worthy follow-up to its predecessor. (Though even that explanation isn’t foolproof – Monsters U too much feels like a cheap cash-in.) That Pixar understands how to repeat its successes without replicating them is a commendable feat. But on the other hand, it can be difficult for viewers to reinvest in characters they haven’t seen in over a decade.
That seemed like a prime stumbling block in Incredibles 2, a film which picks up right where the 2004 original leaves off, and for much of its running time hews quite closely to the themes and character arcs which defined the first film. I first saw the original Incredibles as a kid, and though I’d rewatched the film multiple times in the years since, the childhood wonder I’d experienced back in the day had always tinted my experience of the film (even if, as an adult, I’d found many more things to enjoy about it). Would the sequel hold up as well, now that I was older and (presumably) wiser?
That Incredibles 2 even approaches the original in quality makes for an accomplished answer to that question. From its opening minutes, the film brings its audience back into its animated world so immersively as to make one wonder if they never even left. Writer/director Brad Bird once again proves his mastery of memorable characters and fluid animation, with the latter making some noted improvements over the original. The characters still function as a believable family, and the action remains taut and top-notch – there’s hardly a dull moment throughout the film’s two hours.
There are times, in fact, when Incredibles 2 can feel a bit overstuffed, as if Bird (whose last animated film was 2007’s Ratatouille) has had 14 years’ worth of ideas circulating in his mind, and was eager to get as many of them on camera as possible. That the film doesn’t buckle beneath the weight of its various themes is impressive, but its occasionally shallow messages make one wonder how the film would have fared if allowed more breathing space.
The thematic strengths begin with the visuals. The Incredibles franchise exists in a world slightly out-of-sync with our own – a pseudo-modernized reimagining of the 1960s. It’s a world of boxy cars and neo-cubist furniture, a world where Johnny Quest and The Outer Limits blare regularly on the tube. In both films, the design is fascinating to behold from an aesthetic perspective – but it’s also quite relevant to the film’s deeper aspirations.
The ‘60s were a time of radical social upheaval in America – a time when the Baby Boomer generation began gearing up to throw a wrench into the works of their postwar parents. It was also a fresh and fertile time for comic-book superheroes, with DC taking its characters in strange new directions and Marvel imbuing theirs with a then-unseen level of humanity. The first Incredibles film only passively intertwined these levels of fact and fiction, but the second opts to address it directly.
Supers are still outlawed when Incredibles 2 opens, and, as the family’s initial battle with the Underminer proves, it’s not difficult for a fearful to see why. An untrusting media confirms the opinions of an untrusting public, making bad property damage look worse and sullying the heroes’ already-low reputations. The film doesn’t fully engage in civil rights messaging, but it builds its plot around a similar trajectory, until a fast-talking publicist named Winston Deavor enters the scene and offers to restore their good names.
Winston and his sister Evelyn offer to restore the good name of supers through their most innocuous and publicity-friendly persona – Elastigirl. The first film had Mr. Incredible carry much of the emotional weight on his broad shoulders, as Bob struggled to balance his family life with his urge to return to heroics. The second film lets Helen take the stretch, as she goes through a similar “parent vs. superhero” arc, with the added burden of trying to be the face of a dawning revolutionary movement.
Incredibles 2 isn’t shy about the swapping of character/gender roles, which finds Bob as a stay-at-home dad trying to control the manic and unpredictable Jack-Jack. (The reveal of each new power in the adorable baby’s arsenal is fun for a while, although the family’s reactions to learning of his abilities are less effective for an audience that’s known about them since end of the first film.) And rather than getting bogged down by feminist themes – which would be appropriate, but heavy-handed, for the quasi-period setting – the film leaves us wondering which parent has the more stressful and daunting job. As Edna Mode tells Bob, “Done properly, parenting is a heroic act.”
These familial messages are where Incredibles 2 excels, as Bird once again lets the relationship between Bob and Helen drive the story. (Dash and Violet have their moments as well, but they’re largely ornamental – Violet’s arc is essentially a retread of the first film’s, as her crush gets mind-wiped and she must once again get acquainted with him.) It’s only where the larger plot intervenes that Incredibles 2 begins to feel overstuffed… and a bit muddled.
As we learn midway through the film, Evelyn Deavor (“evil endeavor,” geddit?) is secretly the villainous Screenslaver, a super-criminal with the powers to hack and hypnotize. While her brother views supers as a boon to mankind, Evelyn sees them as a developmental threat to humanity’s future.
In a monologue delivered through a hypnotized proxy (which itself leads to a bait-and-switch reveal), Evelyn accuses Elastigirl and her fellow heroes of spoiling humanity, ushering in a fantasy world where special powers make happy endings. In her mind, supers are a mix of escapist entertainment and welfare checks, providing people with entertainment and heroic rescues at no extra cost. She argues that ordinary people idolize supers to hide their own insecurities and inadequacies.
And in truth, Evelyn may have a point. In our modern world, superheroes have become the ultimate form of escapism. We spend countless dollars on their films (Avengers: Infinity War has made over $2 billion and counting), we dress like them for Halloween and Comic-Con, we discuss and debate their respective merits across the Internet. In a similar vein, celebrity worship has reached new heights in the modern era, with TV and movie stars gaining millions of followers based simply on the characters they masquerade as. This mix of illusion and idolization meshes perfectly in our restless and hero-starved culture.
To that end, it only makes sense that the villainous Screenslaver would attack and enslave people through the very screens they idolize. It’s the cherry atop the film’s satirical social sundae – a villain who capitalizes on our slavish devotion to the fantastic and superficial by turning that devotion against us. (The “using television to fight television” plot even brings to mind the Simpsons episode “Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming” – which grows more relevant once you realize that the episode which introduced Sideshow Bob was directed by Brad Bird! Am I stretching things here?)
What we have, then, as Incredibles 2 nears its midpoint, is an excellent setup for a barnstorming payoff. Questions about the morality and societal usefulness of superheroes, blended with stealthy commentary about modern culture, all wrapped up in a thrilling family drama. For a few moments, I began to hope the sequel could in fact top its already-impressive forerunner.
But by the time the film has revealed its villain’s plan, the story has become too crowded to sustain its core messages. The family interaction remains potent, but far too fleeting – by the time Dash and Violet don their masks, Bob and Helen have been Screenslaved, robbing their characters of any personal agency or potential development for much of the climax. And as the finale erupts in kinetic bursts of derring-do, Evelyn reverts to just another generic villain, her motivation never receiving the thematic payoff it deserves.
It’s a shame, because there are times when Incredibles 2 nears the original in quality. Each scene in which Jack-Jack unveils a new superpower is a delight, and the action scenes are as thrilling as those of a live-action superhero flick. The film constantly pulses with energy, yet never feels overwhelming.
It’s a very good film, and another solid mark on Pixar’s record. But I admittedly hoped it would transcend my expectations and truly challenge its superhero-craving audience. Now that would be incredible.
Incredibles 2 is currently playing in theaters. As you may have heard.