Movie Review: Incredibles 2
By Ben Gruchow
June 28, 2018
Right before the screening of The Incredibles 2 I attended, we were given a minute or so of promotional video with writer/director Brad Bird and the principal cast of the film. They proceed to assure us, with some fervor, that the movie we’re about to see will be worth the wait. The logic of placing this before the film confounds me; this would be expected damage control put in place if Disney had gone wildly overbudget on the project and it had been beset by production setbacks and bad buzz for the year leading up to its release, instead of precisely the opposite.
This is a trifle compared with the actual problem with the film, which is innate. Up until now, Pixar has achieved a remarkable ability to craft storytelling and character consequence utilizing universal or nearly-universal truths: with growing up and not attaching ourselves to our childhood and its innate ignorance of the passage of time (the Toy Story films and Up), learning that the key to health is not suppression of negative emotion but recognition of and responsibility for them (Inside Out), that home is as much or more a state of mind than a place (Finding Nemo and its sequel) and even this film’s predecessor, which posits that individual power is not an innate tool for immediate use, but a trait that requires training and discipline to deploy effectively. With The Incredibles 2, the studio has produced a story that finally tips the balance away from these kind of broad assertions and into something far more specific: We are as people dependent on socialization to survive and advance, and yet have a dependence on artificial constructs and approximations of socialization that blunt our ability to perceive a reality that’s right in front of us.
That’s a tremendously specific and targeted conclusion, and the movie deals with it in ways that are subtle and conscientious. Nor do I frame it as a problem to impugn the rest of the movie, which is a spectacular piece of visual storytelling (and I mean really damn spectacular; taken entirely on its own, American animation hasn’t been this beautifully staged since the opening act of WALL-E a decade ago). And despite the nearly-fourteen-year gap between films, the bridge between the first film and this one is seamless.
It picks up more or less where it left off, both chronologically and tonally, with an action sequence that serves to remind us where the Parr family was when we last saw them: Bob (Craig T. Nelson), Helen (Holly Hunter), Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner) and Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) battling ascendant villains as the title characters. The world of the Incredibles is a mash-up of modern characterization and theme with 1950s-era texture and design, and this results in characters that run the gamut between objectively, outwardly cartoonish and objectively nuanced, while coexisting (sometimes within the same scene). This shouldn’t work at all, and we can credit Bird’s sense of pace and forward momentum for most of the reason why it does. The movie picking up right where the last one left off—driving forward without much of a recap except what we glean in asides, and yet not missing a beat in doing so—is evidence of this skillset.
The circumstances here being what they are, the Parrs shouldn’t be battling villains at all; superheroes are still outlawed, and the family is taken into custody at the conclusion of the film’s opening action scene. With their house destroyed by the villain in the last film, the five of them are living out their last couple of weeks in a motel; the government is unable to secure them anything further. Things are looking bleak (like, insurance-claims-rep bleak) right up until they get a proposal from multimedia billionaire Winston Deaver (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener); also along for the ride is family friend and fellow superhero Lucius Best (Samuel L. Jackson).
Winston’s proposal is about brand awareness and management. Citizens don’t support superheroes because all they ever witness is widespread destruction, followed by the good guys being taken into custody; the solution, then, is to launch a media campaign to reposition them in the public’s eye. For this, Helen is picked as the ideal initial spokesperson; Mr. Incredible though Bob may be, Deaver has determined through data analysis that Elastigirl (Helen’s alter ego) causes less collateral damage. The goodwill incurred from the campaign will be used to lobby world leaders and advocate for formal re-legalization of superheroes. This is less metaphor than find-and-replace, as far as identification with contemporary sociopolitical issues.
From the moment we hear this, we expect ulterior motive from the proposal; whether or not that becomes the case is something I’ll leave to the few of you who haven’t seen the film yet. Bird makes the strategic decision to undercut that initial suspicion by laying out Winston’s motive right from the start: his father idolized and advocated for superheroes, and even had a direct phone line to two of them in the family home. But by the time he needed to actually use that direct line, during an armed robbery, they had been outlawed and couldn’t answer. Deaver believes if they’d never been outlawed, his father would still be alive. The movie then undercuts any doubts we may have about this story by having Evelyn chime in and remind him that they could have just gone to the panic room and survived that way. It pivots the orientation of this scene, from setup and exposition to conflict and development.
It’s also the moment where the movie’s theme regarding dependence and idolization starts to develop into something shaped more for the adults in the audience than the children (another example: Elastigirl remarks on her new, electric motorcycle to go along with her conspicuously-edgy new outfit; asked for her impressions, she responds, “It’s…torquey!”) The campaign, which has empowered a new generation of the superheroically-powered to come forward (in a scene that traces both the unmistakable outlines of recent social movements related to gender, identity, and orientation) attracts the attention of a diabolical cybervillain, the Screenslaver (Bill Wise); he has a motive and goal in keeping with the movie’s themes with a strategy that seems to have been written on the back of a napkin, and this plot element is the only component of the movie that belies its arrhythmic production (the original story was mostly ditched early on).
What we have here, then, is an ostensibly family-oriented film with some fairly complicated articulation of philosophy and conflict, and it doesn’t feel like it really cares all that much about communicating it in a way that appeals to all parties as a first priority. Put another way: the auditorium I saw the film in was stocked with families with young kids, and I observed a shift over the course of the movie’s 118-minute running time. As the story started adding layers and complications, the adults in the audience—myself included—became more absorbed. The kids, on the other hand, started getting more verbal, more restless, more mobile. Their attention became less fixated on the screen and more fixated on communication with their parents and with each other. There were elements that drew their attention back to the screen (pretty much anything with Jack-Jack, led comfortably by a superpowered encounter with a raccoon) but these become fewer as the movie goes on.
Again, the counterweight to this observation is that Incredibles 2 is on its own terms entirely delightful. I liked the way the movie found little additional shadings and dimensions even to its minor characters (the brief return of Edna Mode is spoiled by the trailer, as is her best line of dialogue, but the movie isn’t content to have her deploy one-liners and gives her a fully-formed and even rather touching subplot). On the level of raw technical achievement, particularly the lighting and the staging of action choreography, this is wondrous territory for any superhero film. And the payoff for a decade-plus period in development and production being a sequel this good is enough of a rarity to stand out. It makes me anticipate the inevitable third film much more than I would have, anyway.
4.5 out of 5