Along with the Toy Story trilogy, The Incredibles is one of the jewels in the crown that made Pixar the ne plus ultra of animation companies. But whereas the saga of Woody, Jessie and Buzz Lightyear played out in three films spread across a decade and a half, it’s taken 14 years for Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl and their kids to find their way back to the big screen. Boosted by central characters that remain vastly engaging and a deep supply of wit, Incredibles 2 certainly proves worth the wait, even if it hits the target but not the bull’s-eye in quite the way the first one did. It remains to be seen whether everyone who loved the original when they were 6 years old and is now 20 will rush out to catch this follow-up, but there’s plenty of crackling entertainment value here for viewers from 5 to 95.
Still front and center are the key elements that made Brad Bird’s original creation so captivating: The tested but resilient bonds within the Middle American family with secret superhero lives, the fabulous late-’50s/early ’60s space-age-obsessed design scheme, the deep-dish reservoir of wit, a keenly expressed sense of what it takes to maintain a balanced marriage and great command of a narrative curveball employed to register frequent surprise.
On top of all this is the pronounced female slant (something obviously planned many years ago but utterly in step with modern currents): The story shines the spotlight on Elastigirl, with adolescent daughter Violet beginning to spread her wings. For good measure, infant tyke Jack-Jack hilariously begins displaying his potential with incipient displays of Incredible behavior.
Oblivious to the passage of real time, the tale picks up exactly where the first one left off, with a massive drill guided by the aptly named Underminer (John Ratzenberger) breaking up through the pavement to wreak havoc on Municiberg. There to thwart him are Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), the latter displaying an astounding flexibility that goes beyond what she displayed the first time around in an elaborate opening sequence designed to announce that the Incredibles are back.
But the civil authorities don’t appreciate the destruction caused by their intervention and ban superheroes for good. What this means for the Parrs — Bob and Helen along with 14-year-old Violet (Sarah Vowell), 10-year-old Dash (Huckleberry Milner) and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) — is two weeks at the gorgeously retro Safari Court motel before they’re cast out and forced to decide what to do with the rest of their lives.
For anyone other than resolute animation haters and congenital sourpusses, these first minutes provide an exhilarating rush of retroactive pleasure, partly as a reminder of how distinctively different The Incredibles was from anything that had come before — or has come since. Bird’s authorial attitude is both sly and sincere, with a view of the nuclear family as the locus of human virtue and strength. It’s a perspective that is both tested and reaffirmed multiple times throughout the film, first and foremost with Mr. Incredible resigning himself to taking a backseat in order to tend to child-rearing while his wife ventures out to right the world’s latest wrongs.
Society’s chief nemesis is not another masked man or cackling deformity but an elusive presence cleverly called Screenslaver, which hypnotizes and thus establishes control over anyone who happens to glance at its image when it appears on a screen. This insidious mind-control entity can lay claim to anyone at any time but can’t be caught or retaliated against directly; it’s an advanced, high-tech version of Orwell’s telescreens that works instantaneously.
Given the official opposition to superheroes, it falls to entrepreneurs to make use of their talents (the original Incredibles expressed the same aversion to government in favor of private enterprise), and it’s Helen who gets the call from telecommunications tycoon Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk). The latter is arguably the least well-conceived and -written character in the film — he’s given to upbeat platitudes and cliched attitudes — but the slack is at least somewhat taken up by his tech-wiz sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener), a provocative beauty who may have more going on than meets the eye.
So while Helen suits up to pursue the elusive Screenslaver, her family must learn to get along without her for a while. This leads to some of the funniest, and most deeply human, passages in the picture. Grumpy and disgruntled, the professionally sidelined Bob must assume familial duties that involve various challenges: Violet is going through teen angst and a boy problem; Dash can’t wait to join in the adventuring; and Jack-Jack hilariously begins exhibiting superhero attributes at unexpected moments (they’re like the pubescent explosions of an adolescent, except that these are the uncontrollable emanations of a superbaby).
As in the prior Incredibles, periods of enforced nonsuperheroing get Bob down; he’s daunted by helping his son with new math, and he lazily grows stubble just being stuck in the house every day. But he ultimately makes a breakthrough, realizing he’s got to up his game for the sake of his children, which he finally does to endearing results. It’s the sort of midlife male attitude transition — something akin to Jimmy Stewart’s recognition of the transcendent importance of family at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life — that’s terribly rare in contemporary films, and who would expect it in an animated superhero adventure?
In the meantime, Elastigirl gets to flex her limbs as never before, and it’s a kick to see her exult in them; she’s a woman newly unbound. Taking on human opponents would be far too easy for her, given her dexterous, shape-shifting skills that enable her arms and legs to instantly stretch to unimaginable lengths. Therefore, most of her energies are expended contending with large and powerful modes of transportation. As visually spectacular and speedy as these rescue scenes may be, they’re also a bit much, becoming somewhat rote, even repetitive — (wo)man versus machine, high-speed thrills that continually have to keep topping each other while the heroine discovers the seemingly unlimited extent of her powers. As “exciting” as they are, these scenes feel pushed into overdrive for their generic excitement value in a way that was never the case in the original Incredibles.
Still, this sex reversal where physical achievement and societal role acceptance are concerned is the central dramatic conceit and sociological preoccupation of Incredibles 2, which will make it as popular with women of all ages as it will be for kids. Naturally, the other members of the family ultimately get to join in the fun, too, but Elastigirl is decidedly first among equals this time around.
Two fondly remembered characters from the original, Edna Mode and Frozone, are back, but rather briefly. Of the new characters, the best is the wily Evelyn, distinctively voiced by Keener. Returning veterans Nelson, Hunter, Vowell and Samuel L. Jackson (Frozone) slip back into their roles as if not a day has passed. Director Bird once again deliciously essays Edna.
As before, one of the key creative contributions here is the super jazzy score by Michael Giacchino. Essentially unknown at the time, the composer put himself on the map with his work on the first entry and he’s been one of the busiest soundtrack tunesmiths in Hollywood ever since. At 118 minutes, the new film is just three minutes longer than the original.
Production company: Pixar
Voice cast: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huckleberry Milner, Catherine Keener, Eli Fucile, Bob Odenkirk, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Bird, Sophie Bush, Brad Bird, Phil Lamarr, Isabella Rossellini
Director-screenwriter: Brad Bird
Producers: John Walker, Nicole Paradis Grindle
Executive producer: John Lasseter
Story supervisor: Ted Mathot
Production designer: Ralph Eggleston
Editor: Stephen Schaffer
Music: Michael Giacchino
Casting: Kevin Reher, Natalie Lyon
Rated PG, 118 minutes