Not Quite Up to the Original: The Incredibles 2

For both Pixar and Disney, the question was not if The Incredibles (2004) would have a sequel, but when The Incredibles would have a sequel. Pixar, after all, had already released one sequel, Toy Story 2 (1999) to great acclaim, and The Incredibles seemed the natural choice for the next sequel: a film/franchise with engaging characters and nearly limitless story opportunities. The film had even ended with the Incredibles gearing up to fight their next villain.

Best of all, writer/director Brad Bird was willing to do the sequel. He even had some ideas for it.

But first, Bird had a few other projects to work on—starting with his next film for Pixar, Ratatouille, then already in the initial stages of production, a process complicated by behind the scenes wrangling between Disney and Pixar regarding Pixar’s future. That wrangling may have encouraged Bird to take a brief break from the Pixar studios to direct the live action Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), though he was on good enough terms with Disney to write and direct the commercial failure Tomorrowland for them in 2015.

By then, it had been over a decade since The Incredibles had come out, and both fans and Disney were impatient for the promised sequel—especially after the commercial success of the other Pixar sequels. Fortunately, Bird had started work on the sequel before the box office failures of Tomorrowland became obvious—and since Disney had already promised investors a year earlier that an Incredibles sequel was on its way and in the hands of Brad Bird, Pixar left Bird in charge of the film.

Bird made one decision immediately: The belated sequel would not start off with a timeskip, but would rather take advantage of the plot hook at the end of the last film. That offered the added advantage of allowing the film to start in the middle of an action scene, immediately re-introducing the superpowers of most of the main characters. The inevitable destruction that followed also immediately introduced the film’s central conflicts.

But it also created one major technical hassle. In the intervening years, Pixar had completely changed computer systems and computer servers, meaning that every single character in The Incredibles had to be completely rebuilt and remodeled—while matching the previous film exactly. Animators pointed out that for once, they did not need to solve technical issues like “how do we get a computer to animate hair,” or “how do we animate stripes, period,” since the previous Pixar films had already solved those technical issues—as well as creating a spectacular rendering system that helped make virtually every shot of Incredibles 2 a visual delight.

Most of the original voice cast returned, with the exceptions of Spencer Fox, the voice of Dash, whose young voice had changed considerably in the intervening years, replaced by young voice actor Huckleberry Milner, and Bud Luckey, too ill to voice government agent Rick Dicker, replaced by Jonathan Banks, probably best known for his work on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Luckey died early in 2018, before Incredibles 2 was released. Pixar dedicated the film to his memory.

Other new voices included another Breaking Bad alum, Bob Odenkirk; two time Academy Award nominee Catherine Keener; and Isabella Rossellini as an ambassador from an unspecified country—possibly the United States, possibly not. Since she’s voiced by Isabella Rossellini, she sounds dignified, which is presumably the point.

As always with Pixar films, outside events impacted production—in this case, the issue that Toy Story 4 was struggling to meet its planned release of summer 2018, coupled with Disney demanding a new Pixar film in 2019, in part because of the opening of a new Pixar area at the Disney Hollywood Studios theme park in Florida. The films switched release dates, with Toy Story 4 shifted to 2019, and Incredibles 2 moved up to 2018.

That might help explain why Incredibles 2 feels somehow, how to put this? Good in parts, certainly, but overall, unpolished, and somehow just not quite as good as it could—or should—have been.

Oh, Incredibles 2 has a multitude of delights, certainly. The animation is fantastic, with Elastigirl’s train chase a particular highlight of stunt sequences, imagination, and computer animation. Indeed, in one case, the animation was a bit too fantastic: A center sequence between Elastigirl and villain Screenslaver contained a number of strobe light effects that were realistic enough to cause actual strobe light effects on people sensitive to strobe lights.

(These people include me, which is the main reason why this post is coming to you in December, after I could watch the film on my home television, instead of June, when I probably would have collapsed trying to watch it on the big screen. It is also coming to you after several horrified responses led Disney and Pixar to dampen that sequence before the film was released on streaming and DVD/Blu-ray. I can’t promise that the current film won’t make you sick—I certainly got a touch of vertigo just from my television set, and this is one film that I will never watch in movie theaters—and if you are sensitive to light effects, I would still advise caution, or at least a discussion with a doctor, before watching the film. But the lights are not quite as bright during that sequence as they were, and I survived watching it.)

Other delights include the new super-characters—sure, all of them seem designed to sell toys, but that doesn’t take away from the fun; Bob’s touching apology to his daughter Violet; virtually every scene showcasing Elastigirl, most notably a center chase sequence in the film; and an adorable raccoon who just wants a nice snack and finds himself encountering superpowers instead. (We’ve all been there.)

The film also includes several clever nods to various superheroes not in the movie—the unseen eccentric billionaire who builds a house with multiple secret doors and entrances, including one underground (I was sorry to see the place frequented only by a raccoon and not a bat); a comment about matching superhero costumes to superhero angst (presumably that same eccentric billionaire again, although I also couldn’t help thinking of certain superhero shows on the CW network), and other sly references.

Even better than all this, Incredibles 2 is a film that, like the original, takes the concept of superheroes seriously enough to consider the consequences—and not just the economic consequences either. A sideplot, for instance, focuses on a memory wipe of a minor character—the guy Violet has a crush on—and the effect this has not just on that kid, but on others. And if I found the villain’s motivations to be, how to put this, a touch undeveloped and questionable, the reactions from the insurance companies? Spot on.

And of course, the appearance by the one and only Edna Mode, infuriated that someone else has dressed Elastigirl—the audacity—but willing to provide a bit of babysitting service and a touch of parental advice.

But all of these are attached to a film that sags in the middle, thanks to a number of different pacing issues, not to mention the need to introduce a supercar to allow it to be used in the film later. The introduction is clever enough, but left me mostly thinking, yeah, they’re going to need the car later, aren’t they? It’s also a film that often seems to be following the wrong story—not to mention creating a rather muddled message.

Which is to say, much of the film focuses on the story of Bob and Bob’s inadequacies as a stay at home father and Bob’s emotional issues with this and Bob’s not overly well masked jealousy of his wife and Bob’s insomnia, and this all could be very interesting if it wasn’t so completely overshadowed by the much more interesting story of Helen heading out to superhero on her own. Helen’s story has an amazing motorcycle train chase and elegant parties and new superheroes and betrayals and mysteries and Bob…Bob has a raccoon. It’s a very cute raccoon, but most of the raccoon’s interactions are with little Jack-Jack, and as amusing as the raccoon/Jack-Jack fight is—it’s a highlight of the film—like virtually everything in Bob’s story, it feels like a distraction from the main story, not to mention other characters.

For example: that sideplot about Violet and the boy she likes and the way his memory was wiped and the way Bob apologizes for this? As mentioned, it’s a great example of the way Incredibles 2 has thought about the consequences of many superhero tropes. But most of the subplot focuses on Bob and how this has all affected Bob. Not Violet (who, after bouts of tears, forgives her father and decides to go after the guy anyway and seems fine). Not the kid, who has had his memory erased, without permission, and then forced to endure two extremely awkward, embarrassing scenes. Not the agent responsible for the memory wipe. But Bob—the only person not emotionally involved or victimized here. All the more awkward since we’re meant to be sympathizing with Bob’s guilt here, and taking it as another example of why following the rules isn’t always right.

Even apart from wondering whether or not “No, DON’T follow the rules, kids!” is a completely appropriate message for a film supposedly aimed at children, it’s also a rather muddled message, at best, and not just because Helen is on one side of this argument (“Follow the rules!”) while simultaneously breaking the rules (in order, to, well, save the rules) and Bob is on the other (“Break the rules!”) while simultaneously largely following the rules. Yes, quite a few characters here—including one of the villains—greatly benefit from not following the rules, but the major need here, as both Helen and other characters note, isn’t so much breaking the rules as changing the rules.

The film does present an interesting and timely argument that changing the rules is best done through a publicity campaign—a surprisingly practical and realistic response. I also quite liked the film’s acknowledgement that such well-meant publicity campaigns can easily end up manipulative and/or used for, shall we say, less well-meant purposes. But the argument of “Don’t fight! Go with PR!” also becomes more than a bit muddled when the way to create PR ends up being, well, violence. And breaking the rules.

There’s a lot going on here that deserves more attention. Alas, the twin, not all that well connected plots, and the previously mentioned pacing issues, not to mention the need to introduce elements solely so that they can be used in the final action sequences (I am looking specifically at Bob’s car here), means that none of it gets the attention it deserves.

Nor do the characters—particularly Dash and Lucius/Frozone, arguably the most shortchanged characters in the film. (Some side characters might dispute this.) Dash, who spent the last film desperately wanting to use his powers at school and needing to learn how to fit in, spends this film not wanting to babysit (understandable, given that the baby in question often lights on fire) and struggling with math, when on screen. Lucius/Frozone, who faced the same superpowered crisis that Bob and Helen faced in the first film, is here reduced to a small, static part—a frozen part, if you will.

And any deeper focus on gender roles here is kinda undercut by the reality that Bob isn’t taking care of the kids to support Helen: He’s taking care of the kids so that Helen can allow all of them—and especially Bob—to get back to superhero work. And because Bob’s superhero activities have been extraordinarily destructive, not to mention useless in some cases. (A post credit scene confirms that yes, Bob has allowed some villains to get away.) Which creates the not so minor issue that, in showing how miserable Bob is as the sole caretaker of the children right after this, intentionally or not, Incredibles 2 presents parenting and housework as a punishment. “Done correctly,” Edna Mode declares, voiced by the director, “parenting can be heroic. Done correctly.” With the hardly subtle implication that Bob, as a parent, is not heroic.

From a grownup point of view, Incredibles 2 has one more glaring problem: the villain. I am not the first or last to realize that most of the Disney and Pixar films since Frozen, and perhaps even earlier, have followed a standard pattern: In the last third of the film, a seemingly Kindly Trustworthy Person (or, well, sheep) turns out to have been A Real Villain all along. It’s not in every film—Moana and Finding Dory, for instance, decided to avoid villains at all, to the genuine benefit of both films—but it’s in enough of them that the second two Kindly Trustworthy People showed up, my suspicions were raised. Beyond that, the villain’s motive here is, how to put it, mildly questionable—and, well, kinda aimed at the wrong people. To be fair, it’s hardly the first or last time a film or superhero villain has decided to target an entire group of people because of the actions of just a few people in that group (it’s even the plot of one of the CW shows this season), but still, this robs the villain of the sort of personal, emotional connection that the first film had.

It’s safe to say that audiences disagreed with these issues. As I type, Incredibles 2 has soared to a staggering $1.24 billion worldwide box office take, making it the fourth highest earning film worldwide in 2018 so far, and one of the few animated films to earn more than $1 billion at the box office—and the film is not only still playing at some dollar theaters, it will also enjoy summer and other minor matinee releases in upcoming years, allowing that total to increase. It is also the first animated film to earn more than $600 million domestically. DVD, Blu-ray and streaming numbers are still coming in, but Incredibles 2 seems to be performing well in this market as well. Disney released the usual merchandise, which sold and continues to sell briskly. It seems fairly safe to predict that at some point, we will have an Incredibles 3.

And with this post, somewhat tardy thanks to health issues, the Pixar rewatch finally comes to an end. Thanks for taking this animated journey with me!

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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