Child-parent relationships in the movies sometimes recall relations between the defense minister and the finance minister: the one knows exactly what he wants to spend money on, the other keeps a tight grip on the purse strings. That’s been an important point of departure for Pixar Animation Studios since “Toy Story” 23 years ago. Twenty movies and $12 billion in revenues later, and after being sold to Disney, the company has evidently honed the formula and become a well-oiled machine. “Incredibles 2” is undoubtedly a worthy addition to the list.
Fourteen years ago, “The Incredibles” earned more than $600 million and wall-to-wall acclaim, including the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. However, the animated Parr family has waited ever since for a sequel. After 2004, director-screenwriter Brad Bird worked on the marvellous “Ratatouille” for Pixar, and then made a switch to films with real humans, such as “Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol” and “Tomorrowland,” starring George Clooney. Now he’s returned to his animation roots with “Incredibles 2,” along with most of the original crew.
The plot picks up exactly where it left off. After a struggle against the Underminer, the Parr family is compelled to conceal their superpowers because of the law prohibiting their existence. Everything changes when a pair of billionaires – a brother and sister – who dominate the media empire, recruit their mother, Elastigirl, to assist with public relations. The road to restoring the public’s confidence in superheroes lies in her elegant way of fighting crime, in contrast to her husband, who tends to leave a trail of destruction.
Bob, who aspires to be a new man, has to stay home to raise their young children almost alone. He copes with Violet’s adolescence, with Dash’s zesty hyperactivity and with the new and weird superpowers that the baby, Jack-Jack, exhibits. But the appearance of a new villain, who exploits screens to brainwash people, gets the whole family involved in an adventure.
Plenty of water has flowed under the bridge in the period between the two movies. The time gap by itself has considerably altered our perspective on the family’s exploits. In 2004, Pixar’s choice to deal with superheroes was refreshing, at a time when Spiderman and X-Men were pretty much alone at the top. Christopher Nolan’s Batman didn’t sweep across the big screen until a year later, and three more years passed before Marvel Studios’ universe was launched with Iron Man. Superheroes have been the unchallenged rulers of movie theaters ever since, so it was all the more difficult for “Incredibles 2” to stand out. Even the idea of whole families with powers isn’t new to either the big or the small screen.
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Parents are people
But Bird knows even more today than he understood then: This is not a film about superheroes, or even about a family – it’s about parents’ interrelationships. Because children are the primary target audience, the focus on the everyday problems of Helen and Bob is fascinating. The attempt to convey to children in a mature manner that mom and dad are human beings, too, people who quarrel and make mistakes and then make more mistakes, is done delicately and intelligently. The gender reversal and the tensions it stirs sometimes slide into stereotypes, notably the dumb dad who buckles in mom’s shoes, but even that is done with charm and compassion.
The movie’s major gaffe probably lies in the animation itself. The technology has undergone sweeping transformations since “The Incredibles,” but you’d hardly know it from the sequel. Bird clearly made a conscious decision to ensure continuity at the expense of technologies that weren’t available to him 14 years ago. However, the choreography of the action has improved tremendously. Not necessarily because of the technology, but because this time the chief protagonist is not Mr. Incredible, namely Bob, but Elastigirl.
Her natural ability to stretch into different shapes allows the filmmakers to play with her character in chases and battles. One scene, involving a train chase, which stretches the limits of the imagination as well as the laws of physics, is likely to be remembered as one of the most compelling action sequences of movie superheroes. The baby, Jack-Jack, also spices the action with humor, thanks to his powers, which are continually developing and afford him a host of entertaining encounters, from a determined raccoon to Edna, the fashion designer, who once again steals the show, though this time as part of a duo with Jack-Jack.
Along with the ice-making superhero in the voice of Samuel L. Jackson, who returns for another round, the new movie is packed with new marginal characters. However, the villain is often the gauge for superhero pictures, and here, too, Bird has created an unusual figure. His methods are underhanded, of course, but his critique of culture doesn’t sound like the standard twaddle that villains are made to spout as a motivation of some sort for their nefarious deeds. “Black Panther” did that this year with the character of the supervillain Erik Killmonger, a kind of fighter for the rights of blacks who went too far. Even if he was a despicable murderer, his message about oppression and solidarity resonated with the hero, so he became a tragic figure. The villain of “Incredibles 2” strives for a similar place, but with a softer message for the younger audience.
Superheroes are a basic element in the cultural landscape, but they’re not rigid. At present we’re in a far bleaker place, which reached a peak in Marvel’s quite pessimistic “Avengers: Infinity War.” The same is apparent even in the “X-Men” series, which was launched in 2000 – before the Twin Towers calamity and before the economic crisis – with an optimistic message of coming out of the closet and acceptance of the other. After 10 movies as Wolverine, Hugh Jackman played him for a final time in last year’s “Logan,” in which the messages were reversed: it’s better to stay in the closet, because no one accepts the other, with the exception of Canadians.
But gloom befits neither Pixar nor Brad Bird. The vivacity of the original movie hasn’t vanished, and neither has the optimistic message for the whole family. In 2018, when superheroes mostly oppress others, “Incredibles 2” bears a message of a better world that might be waiting around the corner. When all is said and done, that serves the filmmakers to tell children a story in the language of Pixar about the more complex world of mom and dad. So, if there’s one movie that parents want to take their children to see this summer, it’s “Incredibles 2.” Pixar hasn’t forgotten how to appeal to finance ministers.