Sunday, July 8, 2018

Incredibles 2: Elastic Boogaloo

Holly Hunter as Elastigirl/Helen Parr with Craig T. Nelson as Mr. Incredible/Bob Parr (and Eli Fucile's Jack-Jack). (Photo: IMDB)

It’s strange to think that The Incredibles (2004) isn’t usually included in discussions about the re-emergence of the superhero genre, despite the fact that it predated Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins by a year (and the Marvel Cinematic Universe by a full four years). It falls, somehow, into the no man’s land between Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy – the awkward years, so to speak, before the long-term financial viability of the genre had been established, and before anyone had really figured out how the hell to make these things. You can argue until you’re blue in the face about the relative success of superhero films between the 1970s and now, but the truth is that Brad Bird, writing and directing The Incredibles for Pixar, was the first person to really nail it since Richard Donner’s Superman in ‘78 – creating a film about a superhero family that worked on every level, as emotionally resonant as it was exciting and fun.

It’s even stranger to think that the bias that excludes the movie when we talk about this stuff is probably towards its format as an animated film, despite the fact that the superhero genre’s history rests in the colourful, hyper-stylized pages of comic books. Today, the mega-success of the Marvel films has trained most audiences to expect a certain level of real-life fidelity from the genre, so The Incredibles can still feel like an anomaly – even though it’s much closer in style, theme, and execution to a classic superhero tale than anything Kevin Feige has presided over. Incredibles 2, though, probably has a better shot at mainstream success: 14 years after the original, it’s arriving at a time when audiences are much better equipped to appreciate what it has to offer.

Picking up immediately where The Incredibles left off – literally opening with a continuation of the closing stinger from the first film – Incredibles 2 focuses on the government’s disapproval of “supers” and the lack of oversight on their powers (sound familiar?), forcing the Parr family into early retirement. Wealthy communications baron Winston Deaver, (played by a sprightly Bob Odenkirk), with the help of his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener), parlays his fan-thusiasm for supers into a goodwill campaign to restore the public’s faith in superheroes, using Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) as their main PR weapon. She goes back on the job fighting crime, which leaves Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) to do the Mr. Mom thing and take care of teenage Violet (Sarah Vowell), preteen Dash (Huck Milner) and infant Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile). The tensions within the Parr clan, as in the first film, are as much about the normal family struggles for love, acceptance, attention, and respect as they are about managing the balance between those normal family things and, you know, being superheroes. Bird finds new ways to make these familiar dramatic beats compelling (Bob’s fumbled attempts at parenting, Helen’s tug-of-war between the thrill of work and the needs of her family, and Violet’s teenage angst flaring up alongside her developing powers), and also skillfully mines them for gut-busting comedy (Jack-Jack’s backyard brawl with a feisty raccoon is a particular highlight).

Jack-Jack, Dash (Huck Milner), and Violet (Sarah Vowell) endure their father's extreme dad-ness. (Photo: IMDB)

It goes without saying that the film looks fantastic, which for Pixar is no surprise, but this is due as much to the film’s retrofuturistic art direction as the detail and smoothness of its animation. The Populuxe colour palette, the utopian Atomic Age architecture, and the sleek raygun-gothic vehicular designs are as vibrant and lush – and as suggestive of the film’s comic-book inspirations – as anything Pixar’s ever done. But a flashy look is nothing without a competent director; thankfully Bird is a deft and detail-oriented engineer of visual action, creating satisfying setpieces that move and notch together like clockwork. (Many a live-action director could take cues from his action work; he brought the same timing and verve to his entry in the Mission: Impossible series, with similarly dazzling results.) The creative exploration of what action can look like when multiple super-powered people are thrown into the mix together easily rivals anything in the MCU, and every clash is staged with clarity and efficiency. Incredibles 2 is slowed only by its plotting, which tends to stomp on the brakes just when the character work is gaining momentum, but it’s still as fleet-footed as Dash as he zips around causing chaos for his parents.

Where Incredibles 2 fails to rise to the level of its predecessor is in its lackluster villain – which is especially disappointing given how horrifyingly prescient the last film’s baddie Syndrome (Jason Lee) turned out to be, in this age of male uber-fan entitlement and petulance – and also in the lack of freshness compared to the brilliant originality of the first film, which is something you can fault any sequel for. But given that there’s been a fourteen-year gap, Incredibles 2 is remarkably sprightly, its cast maintaining their bright and energetic chemistry and its sense of fun only having grown in the interim.

Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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