It’s strange to think that as recently as when Pixar’s original The Incredibles came out, big-screen superheroes weren’t the pervasive phenomenon they are now; the Marvel Cinematic Universe was just a gleam in Kevin Feige’s eye, and Christopher Nolan’s reinvention of Batman was a year away. Brad Bird’s 2004 CG-animation smash worked its own revisionist variations on the form while harking back to the 1960s for the spirit and look of its adventure. It was a singular, thrilling and often very funny achievement, and—especially now that costumed crimefighters have taken over Hollywood—an extremely tough act to follow.
And in the latter terms, Bird hasn’t tried with Incredibles 2. Rather than take superheroes’ new popularity and tropes into account, he keeps the sequel, thematically and visually, very much of a piece with its predecessor. In fact, it opens right at the moment the first film left off, with Mr. Incredible/Bob Parr (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) and his family facing down the Underminer (John Ratzenberger), whose dastardly plan is revealed at last. The fallout from this destructive confrontation is enough to reinforce the authorities’ resolve to make “supers” illegal, and with their home destroyed at the end of the original movie, the Parrs are left to hole up in a motel, pondering their next move.
Salvation arrives in the form of telecommunications titan Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), a chipper, unabashed fan of the supers who believes that, with the help of his tech-savvy sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener), public favor can be swung back their way with the right PR. He has determined that Elastigirl/Helen Parr (Holly Hunter) is the best candidate for image rehabilitation, which means that she goes “back to work” fighting crime while Bob is left taking care of teenage Violet (Sarah Vowell), 10-year-old Dash (Huckleberry Milner) and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), the latter of whom keeps demonstrating and practicing new powers. (His backyard tussle with a persistent raccoon is one of Incredibles 2’s comic highlights.) The film thus becomes a canny combination of the time-honored Mr. Mom scenario and an up-to-the-minute celebration of female achievement in what is still largely a man’s world of bigger-than-life heroics.
Statements remain subtext in Incredibles 2, though, as Bird first and foremost aims for a rousing, funny and touching entertainment, and delivers the goods. If it doesn’t deliver quite on the same level as its predecessor, that’s because, like many animated sequels, it’s more plot-driven than before; we don’t learn much that’s new about its characters, and some of the sense of delightful surprise is gone. (That also goes for Bird’s specific plotting here; one key revelation is fairly easy to see coming.) Yet the energetic likeability of the Incredible family more than compensates, and the movie’s heart lies in the bond between them that is tested and stretched even further than Elastigirl’s protean body, but never broken. The four lead performers have real vocal chemistry, which allows us to laugh at Bob’s parenting foibles, thrill to Helen’s exploits and feel for Violet as her adolescent angst is exacerbated by her fantastical life situation. The key, in fact, is that as before, the Incredibles are a family very much like many of ours, just with mega-enhanced abilities.
Bird and his animators support his story and people with dynamic visualization. Many a live-action director could take cues from his cleanly staged and thrilling setpieces here, and Incredibles 2 showcases genuinely evocative imagery throughout, along with a string of wonderful retro design touches. Particular kudos go to lighting DP Erik Smitt; a sequence in which Elastigirl goes after the movie’s key nemesis, an elusive villain called Screenslaver who commandeers graphic displays to hypnotize his victims, slides from absorbing color noir to eye-teasing, flickering abstracts (those with an aversion to strobe effects might want to avert their gaze here and elsewhere). By the finale, Bird runs full riot with the imaginative possibilities of multiple powers being brought into play, while maintaining order amidst what could have been battle-scene chaos.
Favorite supporting characters from the first Incredibles are back as well, with Samuel L. Jackson having just as much fun again voicing Frozone/Lucius Best and Bird himself once more offering tart highlights as super costumer Edna Mode, a.k.a. “E.” And how sweet to hear the voice of none other than Isabella Rossellini as a foreign ambassador, whose name is a nice little shout-out to stop-motion artisan Henry Selick. Love for the possibilities of animation shines throughout this new Incredibles, which once again stands out in its genre even amongst all the competition from the past decade.