Just before the film was set to begin, I was greeted by a montage of cast and crew members alike explaining/apologizing for just how long it’s taken Pixar to release Incredibles 2. The last time we saw the titular family of superheroes, they had just succeeded in vanquishing the monologuing baddie Syndrome through means of questionable morality. The family seemed all set for something approximating a normal life; Dash was good at track, just not too good; Violet discovered her self-confidence, and even managed to impress the cute guy she’d been pining for, and Bob and Helen found a delicate balance between high-powered hijinks and suburban normalcy. That is, until a megalomaniacal mole-man named The Underminer burst from the ground in an enormous drill machine, prompting our heroes to don their masks once again.
This was, as director Brad Bird informed me during the aforementioned pre-movie stinger, fourteen years ago. By any normal metric, that’s a pretty long time to wait for the second part of a story, especially when the target audience for the first film was younger when it released than the film itself is now. Nevertheless, Disney has been disregarding this convention for years. There were eleven years separating Toy Story 2 from Toy Story 3, and 4 is slated for release sometime in 2019, nine years after its predecessor. 2001’s Monsters Inc. was given the prequel treatment in 2013, as was 2003’s Finding Nemo in 2016.
The point being that Disney is old hat at releasing new installments of beloved franchises after unreasonably long periods of time, and have done so with varying degrees of success. And besides, Samuel L. Jackson promised me that the wait would be worth it. So, was it?
Sure. I mean yeah, pretty much.
Incredibles 2 begins exactly where the first ended: The Underminer is here to… undermine some stuff? And so, the family of heroes springs into action, and eventually resolves the situation, albeit not without a level of collateral damage that the authorities seem to find disagreeable. Superheroes are still illegal, after all.
Soon after, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), and Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) are summoned to the offices of Winston Devor (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener), who have a proposition. They want to launch a campaign to improve the public’s perception of superheroes, in the hopes that they’ll be allowed to come back out from the shadows, and they’ve chosen Elastigirl as their golden goose.
Beyond a simple catalyst for plot progression, this element of the film is an integral part of the ubiquitous Pixar subtextual meaning. Coco was a story about the fear of moving on without having made amends, wrapped up in a beautiful and touching tale of family, individuality, and forgiveness. Toy Story 3 was about the fear of the unknown, and a desire to do nearly anything to cling to the past when faced with a major life-upheaval (like college), presented as a cripplingly sad threat to literally murder your favorite childhood characters with fire. Monsters University was about coming to terms with your own skills and limits in college, Finding Dory was about overcoming and finding pride in a disability, and A Bug’s Life was Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai starring Dave Foley as a bipedal ant.
True to form, Incredibles 2 does have depth, it’s just mostly visible from the get-go. With Elastigirl away from home fighting crime, Bob needs to learn how to move beyond being Mr. Incredible and instead deal with the very real pressures of being a stay at home parent. Violet is having boy problems, Dash is struggling to understand the new way that school is teaching math, and Jack-Jack’s superpowers are unpredictable, powerful, and horrendously inconvenient for a guy who just wants a few hours of sleep. Of course, it doesn’t help that Elastigirl is both living it up in the limelight while Bob toils at home and that she is (perhaps justifiably) skeptical of his single-parenting abilities.
This is a surprisingly thoughtful, if transparent, examination of the grueling, demanding job that parenting is. Nobody’s thanking Bob for what he’s doing, because it’s supposed to be easier than stopping runaway trains, and somebody has to do it. Another layer of nuance is added during a mid-movie phone conversation between the couple. Helen’s attempts to encourage and reassure her husband that he’ll be out in the world, living his former, exciting life again soon, smack of the kind of unintentionally patronizing tone one assumes when describing an amazing trip that they’re on, or when one partner is having meetings in ritzy hotels while the other changes diapers. There is love, of course, but an inherent inequality made all the more powerful by the fact that this time around, it’s the mom doing the patronizing, the encouraging, and the reassuring rather than the father.
This turns Incredibles 2 into a surprisingly salient film about what happens to a traditional family when the engrained gender-roles are flipped. It’s not exactly a new concept in the world of cinema at large, but being set as the focus of one of the most anticipated sequels in the history of animation certainly makes a statement.
My only concern is that a great deal of the humor may have been weighted too far towards the parents in the audiences. Are children really going to pick up on the fact that Jack-Jack multiplying endlessly or phasing through walls is meant to capture the feeling of somehow always being one step behind an impossibly crafty and nimble infant? Or why he turns into a flaming troll-beast when his father stops placating him with cookies? Is the joke about “new math” really geared towards the kids learning that method, or their parents who are hopelessly confused by it?
Granted, I am physically and mentally incapable of watching this or any other film from the perspective of a child, as I am not, in fact, a child. It’s entirely possible that more of the jokes will read far better to young audiences than I think they will, and that the pure visual spectacle will be more than enough to keep them entertained. It just seemed to me that more often than not, the laughs were coming from comments on parenting, rather than being parented.
So far, I’ve spent the vast majority of this review skimming over the story, and discussing some of the more impressive nuances of the script. That’s mostly because, in a few departments, Pixar is relatively predictable. Of course the animation is top-notch, of course the soundtrack is a jazzy delight, of course the end is predictable and the villain is flat, it goes without saying that the cast is superb, and, invariably, the action and direction are solid. None of these positives or negatives really seem worthy of additional praise or note, possibly because the animation style being used was set in stone over a decade ago, because most of the music retreads familiar beats from the original, or because the bar has been set so low for villains in general that meeting expectations now comes with fewer requirements.
Incredibles 2 is, in a lot of ways, everything fans could have hoped for in a sequel. It’s fast, fun, heartfelt, hilarious, jazzy, and creative. In just as many ways, it’s exactly what fans must have expected from a sequel. Everything that worked so well in The Incredibles still works here, it’s just not as fresh. That could be the result of the fourteen-year gap, the roughly twelve-million superhero films that fill that gap, or simply that the original has the benefit of nostalgia. Whatever the reason, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that Incredibles 2 never quite matches its predecessor’s effortless, breezy tone and Dash-quick wit.
That having been said, not quite hitting the mark set by The Incredibles is hardly a damnation. If the first film is an animated classic, then at the very least this one is an exceptionally fun weekend at the movies. If pressed for an answer, I’d have to say, “Yes Mr. Jackson, it was worth it.”
Bonus – Short Film Review: Bao
It wasn’s Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.