Pixar Animation Studios has built its reputation on a lot of elements: computer animation that was miles ahead of the competition for more than 15 years, memorable humor and memorable characters, and stories that are accessible to children but sophisticated enough to keep adults engaged. But past a certain point in its history, Pixar became known above everything else for its willingness to explore emotional depths its contemporaries wouldn’t touch. Pixar films like Finding Nemo, Up, Toy Story 3, and Inside Out deal directly with death and other very personal, deeply felt losses, from letting go of childhood to letting go of the possibility of motherhood. The Pixar “brain trust” — a core group of insiders who push the studio’s chosen writers and directors toward high-quality and immense risks — has a knack for emotional insight and a track record that speaks for the value of pushing the limits of what animation can do, visually and narratively.
But occasionally, Pixar films jump back from those heavy emotional burdens and just take their characters on a big adventure. Incredibles 2, Brad Bird’s sequel to his 2004 superhero adventure The Incredibles, is a case in point: Bird describes it as “just a popcorn film,” a fun action movie without elaborate themes or painful feelings. It feels like a conscious step back from Bird’s original Incredibles, which was openly about a middle-age crisis, a slowly disintegrating marriage, and two kids coming to terms with their superpowers. Incredibles 2 is a lighter and more incident-packed adventure. The same characters are running through some of the same emotions but with much less of a sense of weight and impact.
The Incredibles introduced a world where superheroes and villains exist, but heroes have been outlawed due to the incredible property damage they tend to cause when saving the day. (In the sequel, one agent of the law points out that banks are insured and that it’s easier to cleanly, legally deal with a villain robbing one than to deal with the chaos left behind by a “helpful” hero.) Married couple Bob and Helen Parr (Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter) used to be big-time superheroes Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl when they were younger, but since being outlawed, they’ve gone underground and had three kids: Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Spencer Fox in Incredibles, Huck Milner in Incredibles 2), and baby Jack-Jack. The first movie focuses on Bob’s misery at being stuck with an office job and his excitement at being offered a backdoor route back into thrilling superhero fights and a glam hero lifestyle. But the invitation turns out to be a trap that pulls his whole family into a fight against a hidden villain. By the end of the film, the two older kids have learned to embrace their powers, Helen has reluctantly, then enthusiastically embraced their return to derring-do, and Jack-Jack has started exhibiting a wide range of powers of his own. The film ends with the family about to square off against a mole-like, tunneling supervillain who calls himself the Underminer.
Incredibles 2 opens just seconds later, continuing the battle with the Underminer. But the moment of satisfaction and family unity that ended The Incredibles rapidly disintegrates, and shortly after the fight, Bob and Helen learn that a previous government program to support and help hide former superheroes has been canceled. They’re already unemployed due to events in The Incredibles, and now they no longer have government help in covering up their activities. But a pair of wildly rich, helpful siblings, Winston (Bob Odenkirk) and Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener) offer the Parrs an out in the form of a PR campaign that they say will help restore superheroes’ reputation and legal standing. The catch is that Mr. Incredible is too clumsy and careless as a hero: the Deavors want Elastigirl as their poster girl, given her far more surgical and studied form of heroism. Bob seethes at being held back and left out, but he reluctantly attempts to parent his kids while his wife heads to work.
Given the sleek 1960s retro-future of the Incredibles world, that primary plot feels like a nod to the era where women entered the workforce en masse, dealing with condescension and revulsion from male counterparts as they tried to build careers. But the story also feels a bit too much like 1983’s Mr. Mom, a clumsy John Hughes-written fish-out-of-water comedy where wife Teri Garr heads to work, while dad Michael Keaton clumsily stays home and tries to parent the kids. In 2018, it’s openly weird to be watching a movie about a father of three who’s teeth-grindingly jealous about his wife’s job, and who has to learn how to handle basic parental tasks like talking to his kids about their problems. Bob’s smoldering resentment and hair-trigger temper are in keeping with his rage and self-regard in the first movie, but in the sequel, they’re so undeserved that they make him look incompetent and childish in a way that isn’t fun or funny, just a bit depressing.
Incredibles 2 suffers from a bit of sequelitis, as Bird dutifully trots out all the elements that helped to make the first film a breakout hit, but he makes them bigger and more elaborate this time. Once again, there’s an invitation to adventure and a secret villain on one side, and family issues on the other. But there’s also another lengthy interval with hilarious superhero fashion designer Edna Mode (voiced by Bird), a bunch more gags about government mind-wiping, and the obligatory joke about how badass superhero Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) has a nagging offscreen wife. That’s on top of a lot more comic business with vain kid Dash and temperamental teenager Violet causing family problems. Above all else, there’s a whole lot of Jack-Jack, who’s turning into the Minion of the Incredibles movies: the cute babbling thing that takes over the story and slows down the action for self-indulgent comic riffs. Incredibles 2 has so many sidelines and subplots that it periodically feels like it’s a whole season of an Incredibles TV series crammed into one antic movie.
As a result, none of the plotlines really get their full due. Part of the power of The Incredibles was the way each protagonist and main villain had a distinct personal story arc, but all of them worked together seamlessly to create a single propulsive story. Incredibles 2 is much more distracted, jumping around between Violet’s dating woes, the superhero-legalization project, a new villain called Screenslaver, Jack-Jack’s unpredictable powers, Violet and Dash’s resentment at being pressed into babysitting duty during villain fights, and a whole lot more. And through it all, Bird never develops a single theme or throughline that could tie them all together.
That isn’t entirely a problem. It makes for a distractible movie, where audiences will probably pick and choose the story threads that engage them and spend the downtime between developments waiting to get back to a favorite plot. The approach means virtually all the first film’s characters get some significant screen time and their own elaborate sequences, even if they don’t really move forward as characters. For fans of the first Incredibles, the sequel may seem less focused, but it’s still a chance to spend time with memorable characters who are extremely well conceived, voiced, and designed.
And any objections to the plot tend to fall away during the copious action sequences. Over the course of just a handful of films (The Iron Giant, Incredibles, Ratatouille, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, and Tomorrowland), Bird has shown incredible facility at staging dynamic action, where the camera, characters, and setting all move together with the unity of purpose and focus that the film’s plot frequently lacks. Above all, Incredibles 2 is a stylish and inventive adventure movie, marrying the first film’s slick designs and intense color scheme with an increased focus on fast movement and split-second decisions. Watching it is as much like being in an expertly realized video game as the early game sequences of Ready Player One. Bird leaves in the Mission: Impossible-inspired sneaking and spying sequences that made Incredibles taut and tense, but he alternates with fights designed to leave viewers’ mouths hanging open. He says it’s a popcorn movie, but it’s also the kind of visually immersive thrill ride that’s likely to make viewers forget their popcorn altogether.
And part of that thrill ride is a devotion to coming up with inventive new ways for heroes and villains alike to use their powers. One of the biggest pitfalls in superhero stories is the tendency to fall back on obvious power use: it’s hard to find an exciting new way for the Hulk to smash everything in sight or for Hawkeye to shoot something with an arrow. With Incredibles 2, Bird keeps finding new ways for his characters to work in concert, to cooperate and collaborate in order to keep escalating the action.
But while Incredibles 2 has all the first movie’s visual propulsion, it’s still a bit regrettable that it lacks the narrative propulsion to go with it. In a recent interview with The Verge, Bird says the film’s villain came late in the story process and that he kept tinkering with the script as the film was being made. That development process shows in the final product, which never manages to make the villain as integral to the story or as relatable to the audience as Syndrome in the first film. Incredibles 2 is apparently exactly what Bird wanted: a popcorn movie that’s full of quick switch-ups, familiar character business, and cute jokes. It only feels like less because Incredibles was so much more.
Note: As usual for Pixar movies, Incredibles 2 screens with a Pixar short: Bao, an adorable and extremely emotional little film about a Chinese woman who ends up with an unexpected child when a dumpling she’s made comes to life. It’s a fairy tale in the tradition of The Gingerbread Man, Momotaro, and other traditional “childless family gets a strange child through magical means” fables, but it goes in dark and surprising directions. Narratively, it’s nothing like Incredibles 2, but for fans of Pixar’s emotional bravery, it’s a perfect complement to Bird’s film: it’s less action-oriented and more about impressions and feelings. Writer-director Domee Shi recently spoke with The Verge about bringing her culture and family to the screen.