Review: “The Incredibles 2”

4 out of 5 stars.

Pixar’s “The Incredibles” was released 14 years ago.  Think about that.  Fourteen years.  The long-awaited sequel to the animated film that follows a family of superheroes is finally in theaters, and it picks up at the exact moment that its predecessor left off, the familiar characters springing into action as if they and their world have just been frozen all these years and no time has passed at all.

And yet, time has passed.  “The Incredibles” was released in the summer of 2004, around the same time as “Spider-Man 2”—the first, and as of yet only, successful major comic book movie franchise of the decade.  We were still a year away from Christopher Nolan releasing the first installment of his acclaimed Batman trilogy, and a full four years away from the release of “Iron Man” and the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Superhero movies just weren’t much of a thing—and now, they are everything.  “The Incredibles 2” comes on the heels of some of the biggest blockbusters ever made, featuring epic team-ups of some of the most famous comic book heroes of all time as they face the highest of stakes.  It’s interesting to place “The Incredibles 2” amongst these other movies, because it easily could have followed the same path those franchises did—a compelling but generally light origin story to begin with, followed by increasingly darker stories with more serious themes.  Fortunately, amidst the surrounding noise, “The Incredibles 2” largely remains true to itself and to its characters, delivering a superhero film that is fast-paced, funny, action-packed, and character-driven—although you can certainly argue (and I will) that the influence of superheroes as currently portrayed in pop culture is there.

Most of the same cast and crew are back on board for the sequel, which is written and directed by Brad Bird.  After their attempt to stop a villain called the Underminer from robbing a bank and causing more destruction in the process, the super-powered Parr family is forced to adhere to their secret identities at all times—not only were superheroes already illegal after falling out of favor with the general public (this was discussed in the first film), but the superhero relocation program that helped protect their identities is being shut down thanks to the Parrs’ actions.  But just as it seems like they are running out of options, Helen/Elastigirl (Helen Hunt) and Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) are approached by Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), the powerful and wealthy owner of the tech company DEVTECH, who also happens to be a huge superhero fan and wants to do what he can to make supers legal again.  Along with his inventor sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener), Winston devises a plan that is essentially one big publicity stunt, involving one of the heroes to travel to the crime-infested city of New Urbem to fight crime and win over the public.  Because she is the least destructive of the group, Helen is selected to go on this mission, while Bob stays at home and watches the kids.

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Bob falls asleep reading to Jack-Jack

The role reversal that takes place here is one of the most compelling aspects of the movie, and the one that leads to the most character growth.  In “The Incredibles,” Bob yearned to get out of the office and use his powers again, so much so that he leapt at the first chance he got.  He was very much the main protagonist of that film; in this movie, he shares time equally with Helen.  It’s Helen’s turn now to experience that euphoria and get to be a hero people can look up to; meanwhile, Bob still wants to get out there, and while he isn’t happy about it, he accepts it.  It’s now his turn to play the stay-at-home parent, and while much of his ineptitude at parenting is played for laughs, in the end he gets closer to them and learns how to be a better father.

What’s wonderful about this movie is that these characters are still allowed to learn and grow and have new experiences without deviating from the characters we know and love from the first film—characters we’ve grown very familiar with seeing from rewatching their one movie over the last decade and a half.  Helen gets to be the awesome hero and partake in all the cool action scenes, but she’s willing to drop it all immediately and go home if her family needs her.  Just as he wants to be the best hero he can be, Bob develops a single-minded determination to be the best dad possible, even if that means staying up all night to learn New Math so he can help Dash with his homework.  The kids are able to take on more responsibility while still being allowed to be kids with the usual problems they face at their respective age groups.  Dash (Huck Milner) is hyper and mischievous; Violet (Sarah Vowell) is moody and sometimes insecure; and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), well—Jack-Jack steals much of the movie as the powers he was hinted at having at the end of the first film come out in full force.  The scenes where the family is all together bickering are some of the best in movie, not just because they are funny, but because they feel like a real family.

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Elastigirl takes charge of her own mission

Story-wise, “The Incredibles 2” treads some of the same ground, but with a very different twist.  “The Incredibles” felt very inspired by comic books, and successfully played around with a variety of topics, from the supers having to live under their secret identities, to the idea that superheroes are illegal because they do more harm than good, to the fanaticism that inevitably accompanies any popular figure, and the destruction that follows.  “The Incredibles 2” feels more inspired by comic book movies.  The legality of superheroes is still a major issue being dealt with, as is the hero adjusting to home life and the hero going back to fighting crime after a long absence.  But this film dwells a bit on the fun gadgets, the over-the-top villains and the colorful and exotic locales, and more on the serious topics: urban crime, politics, and the realness of a villain that feels more like it stepped out of a Marvel or DC movie than out of the pages of a comic book.  There are even more superheroes that are added to the mix of this film.  None of this is bad, although the story lacks the punch of its predecessor, and is predictable from the start.  And when I say that it’s more serious at times, know that this script does a great job balancing the dramatic scenes with the comic ones; this movie is packed with hilarious moments, from snappy dialogue to slapstick.  But at the end of the movie, it does feel like there was a missed opportunity to make a big statement, and that the set-up we were given at the beginning of the film isn’t entirely followed through.  Everything wraps up just a bit too tidily.

But for the few flaws it has, “The Incredibles 2” is still a blast, and still a refreshingly simple change of pace from what live-action comic book movies and television shows have been giving us for the past decade.  The visuals are stunning, and it’s amazing to see how far Pixar animation has come since the release of the first “Incredibles.”  The action scenes are especially well-animated and nicely staged, whether it’s Elastigirl getting into a fist fight with a bad guy, or zipping smoothly along on her motorcycle.  There are some interesting new characters, but most importantly the appearance of some familiar faces, from the Parrs’ super friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) to costume designer Edna Mode (Brad Bird), and they are all used to great effect. Hopefully, if the quality continues to be of this caliber, we’ll get another “Incredibles” sequel sometime down the line (but less than a decade from now, please).  But if we don’t, this movie leaves us—and its characters—in a good place, and it’s undeniable that the Parr family has made as big an impact on audiences as any major superhero would.

Runtime: 118 minutes. Rated PG.

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