It’s been over a decade and twenty Marvel movies since Pixar and Disney released The Incredibles, and the 2004 animated hit still stands as one of the greatest superhero movies ever made.
Writer-director Brad Bird and the Pixar magic-makers packed a heap of greatness — rapid-fire quips and action, Holly Hunter’s fantastic voice performance as Helen Parr/Elastigirl, Michael Giacchino’s memorable horns-heavy score — into a perfectly baked 115-minute treat of action, comedy, fantasy, and family drama. Not a bit of it felt stretched or extraneous.
Bird’s sequel Incredibles 2 (★★★½) is equally swift, though the genre juggling act feels a little less effortless. The jokes still fly like speeding bullets and the superb voice cast is back, including Craig T. Nelson as Helen’s husband Bob, a.k.a. Mr. Incredible, Bird himself as super-designer Edna Mode, and new additions Catherine Keener and Bob Odenkirk as mysterious sibling tech moguls Evelyn and Winston Deavor.
One thing missing from the experience is the substantial element of surprise. Having exceeded expectations before, the filmmakers have to work harder here to stay steps ahead of an audience that knows how incredible the Incredibles can be. And the story just doesn’t work hard enough. For instance, too much suspense is invested in Helen’s inevitable discovery of a secret that viewers of the first film learned a decade ago: that the Parrs’ toddler Jack-Jack is literally exploding with superhuman abilities of his own.
Picking up the Parrs’ story from almost exactly the point where the first film left off, Incredibles 2 first thrusts Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl and their other two kids, sullen Violet (Sarah Vowell, reprising the role) and precocious Dash (newbie Huck Milner), into battle with the mole-faced Underminer (Pixar mainstay John Ratzenberger).
Although it’s still illegal for so-called supers to use their powers in public, the Incredibles get several chances to fight crime as a family. Alongside ever ready and reliable superfriend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), they bury the Underminer and are soon faced with a new foe.
The Screenslaver (great name) transmits a hypnotic signal that enslaves viewers through their screens — televisions, cell phones, any display. He’s a totally 2018 bad guy, and an effective expression of the paranoid, retro-futuristic vibe that ran through The Incredibles.
Voiced by Bill Wise, the Screenslaver cuts a frightening figure in his goggle-faced mask, and his mind-control methods bear a grim menace that Rod Serling probably would have loved. But that’s about as dark as the movie gets, which might disappoint grown-up fans of the first film who enjoyed the hilariously morbid sight of a superhero being sucked into a jet engine during Edna Mode’s famous “No Capes” rant.
Elements like “No Capes” helped defined not only the high stakes of heroism, but also the franchise’s knowing worldview about grown-up concerns: death, marriage, dead-end jobs. Incredibles 2 now trains that perceptive eye even closer to home, on Bob and Helen’s need to balance crime-fighting with parenting their children. Thus, the movie embraces the Disney side of its heritage.
Bird’s script hits a few doubles in the portrayal of baby Jack-Jack as a virtually uncontrollable monster whenever he doesn’t get his way. He’s a bouncing, giggly ball of joy the rest of the time. But watching beleaguered dad Bob, home alone with the kids, struggle to help Dash with his homework and play matchmaker with Violet and her middle school crush takes Incredibles to tired sitcom territory. It might be relatable, but it’s not where you want to go.
At least Elastigirl is off doing something interesting. She’s wooed out of the house to lead a super team of crime fighters working for the Deavor siblings’ initiative to Make Supers Legal Again. The Deavors’ campaign adds a frisson of intrigue, and divides Bob and Helen on the question of whether it’s better to fight the unjust anti-super law by protesting it lawfully, or by breaking it righteously.
The expanded role of Elastigirl, and Hunter, also marks one of the major gains for the sequel, in addition to some elastically inventive, heart-racing action sequences. The editing and detail of the animation in the Incredibles’ and Frozone’s subterranean street-fight against the Underminer is stunning, down to the billowing clouds of dirt and dust wafting through frame.
The sequence starts the picture off strong, and the action actually gets better from there. From Elastigirl almost single-handedly stopping an out-of-control hovertrain, to Jack-Jack tussling in the yard with a very determined raccoon, Incredibles 2 wins when it flexes its superhero muscle. Conversely, the movie wears pretty thin overindulging the babies-can-be-little-monsters jokes.
Bird does inject a fabulous bit of baby humor when Edna Mode gets involved in trying to wrangle Jack-Jack. Appearing sparingly, “E” still proves to be a comic highlight. The day she goes missing, the Incredibles really will have some fighting to do.
Incredibles 2 is rated PG, and opens in theaters everywhere June 15. Visit fandango.com.