By Preston Wilder
Say what you like about Incredibles 2 – and what can you say? it’s… incredible – but it’s clearly the work of one man, as opposed to a committee. Some scenes (in the first half-hour, especially) are a little long-winded, and would surely have been trimmed in another movie. The action scenes are exhilarating, the character work full of life, the whole thing is wildly inventive – but why does everything pause for debates on moral issues, e.g. whether one should still obey the law when the law is unjust? And what’s with the vocabulary? Sixth-form-essay words like ‘renounce’ and ‘conflated’ – in a kids’ cartoon?
Most Hollywood films tend to sand down the edges; Incredibles 2 has edges to spare – making it all the more remarkable that it feels so smooth and fleet-footed. In an age when superhero films in particular are so bitty (Avengers: Infinity War plays like a Greatest Hits album), here’s one that’s all of a piece, designed both simply and elegantly, a film to be swallowed in one gulp; yet it’s also quite odd, with eccentric detail like those big words and moral debates. It feels personal.
The one man behind it all is Brad Bird, who’s unusual for having worked both in live-action and animation (mostly the latter, though he hasn’t made an animated feature since Ratatouille in 2007, having spent the interim guiding Tom Cruise up the Burj Al Arab in the magnificent Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and helming the misjudged-but-interesting Tomorrowland), and is also unusual for holding more – shall we say – robust political views than his Hollywood brethren. Bird is quite simply an elitist, and a firm believer in meritocracy: some are smarter, or stronger, or better than others, he believes, and society shouldn’t discourage them for the sake of being ‘inclusive’. “Everyone’s special, Dash,” cooed Mrs. Parr, a.k.a. Elastigirl in the original Incredibles (2004), echoing the rose-tinted relativism of Disney cartoons. “Which is another way of saying no-one is,” scoffed her disgruntled son.
The Incredibles had a strong, simple message, likeable characters and fabulous action. Incredibles 2 is a bit more confused, though the emphasis again is on striving for excellence: the villain is a body-snatching type called Screenslaver who uses screens – TVs, computers – to hypnotise people, a dig at the passive consumerism of modern life (“Screens are everywhere. We are controlled by screens”). Early on, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl (voiced by Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter) wreak Avengers-type urban damage while pursuing a robber, and are roundly rebuked by the authorities: “If you had simply done nothing”, things would’ve taken care of themselves, say the cops. So what if a bank was being robbed? Banks are insured. Apathy, it seems, is the real villain.
It may seem like I’m making too much of the film’s ideas, but they’re not exactly buried in arcane metaphors; they’re out in the open, kiddie audience be damned. Incredibles 2 is smarter than most cartoons; it’s funnier, too. There’s a very realistic family argument, with the kids (Dash and his teenage sister Violet) interrupting and being obnoxious as kids often are; “It defines who I am!” declares Dash at one point, prompting a moment’s perplexed silence as everyone tries to figure out what he means (“Someone on TV said it,” he explains sheepishly). The character detail is consistently great, from Mr. Incredible slouching on the sofa – seething jealously while his wife’s superhero exploits are on every channel – to Violet’s teenage needling at the breakfast table, but the biggest triumph is undoubtedly Jack-Jack, the baby who was something of an afterthought in the first film, being the only Incredible without special powers.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that Jack-Jack has powers (and how!), the combination of mind-bending magic and delighted infant gurgling making for much hilarity – and his facial expressions are gloriously detailed too, a reminder of how far animation has come in the 14 years since The Incredibles. We see quite a lot of the family, because Dad has to hold down the fort while Mum fights crime at the behest of a brother-and-sister team planning a media blitz in support of superheroes. The film flits between these two threads before bringing them together, in a Spy Kids-type flourish, for a satisfying climax (you see what I mean about clean, simple lines) – though not before Mr. Incredible has been almost worn out by domestic life. “Done properly, parenting is a heroic act,” notes diminutive costumier Edna, and only Bird (who incidentally voices Edna) would’ve added that ‘Done properly’.
Say what you like about the writer-director – and what can you say? he’s… incredible – but the man knows his stuff. A bike vs. train chase is thrilling, a raccoon vs. baby brawl is even more amazing, a 10-second bit where Elastigirl tries to grab a hand-hold on the villain’s plane takes the breath away, and meanwhile you also get lines like “Which side of me are you asking, the believer or the cynic?” to bewilder the small fry. Can Incredibles 2 match the wit and verve of The Incredibles? Incredibly, it comes close.
DIRECTED BY Brad Bird
WITH THE VOICES OF Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson
ANIMATED ACTION COMEDY
US 2018 118 mins