Pixar has, in recent years, been a victim of its own success, to no small degree. When your studio launches with a nearly uninterrupted streak of greatness, and then takes a break from some (pretty good but not great) sequels to release Inside Out…well, you’re not making things easy for yourself. And then Incredibles 2 makes things even harder, by being a very long-awaited (14 years!) sequel to one of Pixar’s most beloved films. In other words, there’s almost no way it could possibly live up to the expectations set for it.
And in some ways, Incredibles 2 definitely suffers from the comparison. From a plot perspective, Incredibles 2 is functional, but not much more, following Helen/Elastigirl as she gets the chance to fly solo as a hero for a bit, while dad Mr. Incredible has to take care of the kids. Are you thinking, “wait, did they really revisit one of the most hoary and painful tropes of an 80’s sitcom?” Oh yes, they did, and does it feel weirdly dated and out of touch with anything approaching modernity? Most definitely. (Yes, The Incredibles is clearly set in an alternate 60’s era, but that doesn’t make this plot thread any better.)
That’s a bit of a creaky foundation on which to build a movie, and while the rest of Incredibles 2 works and holds together, there’s just not much there. Incredibles 2 so often feels like a bunch of half-constructed threads and ideas tossed together to make something that works and delivers a movie, there’s no substance to grab onto. Every time the movie seems to be coming up on some central thesis, some universal theme, it gets distracted and wanders off. There’s a central villain called the ScreenSlaver who worries about people living through their devices and screens; there’s Bob and Helen’s marriage adjusting to the shifting roles they each have; there’s the change in society as supers fight for recognition; there’s Violet’s efforts to date…on and on, and none of it ever coalesces into something focused and trenchant.
But for all of that, you can see the rating I gave Incredibles 2, and that’s because as empty as it might be, none of that keeps it from being as much fun as it is. Oozing style in every frame (Bird’s embrace of the 60’s retro, mod style is a joy, and suffuses the whole movie), anchored by great vocal performances, and delivering action sequences to die for (more on those in a moment), Incredibles 2 is a popcorn movie done right; there’s not much to chew on, but there’s no big flaws, and style to spare.
And, oh man, are there those action sequences. Brad Bird has long had an eye for fluid, inventive action sequences that leave your jaw dropped – look, for instance, at his incredible (heh) work on Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, especially that closing parking garage sequence. Bird’s mind incorporates all of the moving parts in a scene, all of the abilities, and weaves them together in dazzling, creative ways that are a joy to watch. In an era saturated by superhero movies that shoot every fight the exact same way, Incredibles 2 reminds you that superhero fights should never be the same, and can flow together in mind-bending, wild ways. (The best aspect may be Bird’s use of a minor superhero who can create dimensional portals, an ability that Bird finds new uses for constantly and inventively, leaving me in awe of how creatively he paired them against each new opponent.) More than that, there’s the way Bird helms them, giving us long, fluid, moving shots that follow the action seamlessly, allowing the audience to take it all in and just keep up with it.
Look, Incredibles 2 isn’t the original, and it’s not going to be in the top tier of Pixar films. It’s a bit empty, from any thematic perspective, and under the surface, it does its job and not much more. But as stylish summer spectacle, it’s a joy to watch, and reminds you of what a gifted director Brad Bird is when it comes to giving us that spectacle. Set your expectations right, and you’ll have a blast.
The short film: As per tradition, there’s a short film attached to Incredibles 2; this time, it’s the beautiful and heartfelt Bao, about a Chinese woman who’s surprised when one of her dumplings comes to life as a little baby. Bao is incredibly sweet and simple; without a line of dialogue, it tells a story of parenting and motherhood that both draws on Chinese tradition and taps into something universal and beautiful. There’s a sharp swerve about 2/3 of the way through the film, and one that hit me hard in the heart for a variety of reasons. I loved it; it’s sweet, funny, and gets at something that hits a bit close to home these days.