When The Incredibles first flew into theaters in November 2004, it was a wholly unexpected genre-bender, even by Pixar's lofty standards: an instant animation classic that came out out of nowhere. The Incredibles 2, by its very nature as a sequel, is at a disadvantage in that respect. We know what to expect from the Parr family as they struggle to conceal their identity as superheroes from the wider world that has outlawed their kind.
And yet, Incredibles 2 still manages to be ahead of the curve, especially in the way that it handles the parenting dynamic between Helen, a.k.a. Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), and her hulky hubby Bob, a.k.a. Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), this time around.
The film picks up right where the first one left off, with the whole family, including teenage daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), unruly son Dash (Huck Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) in the school parking lot, about to face off with The Underminer – a large mole-like villain who steals from banks by drilling holes under them until they drop underground. Long story short, the "supers" save the day, but not without a major PR disaster that leaves them no better off in the eyes of those they wish to impress. Still, their first public resurgence in 10-plus years catches the eye of one Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), a tech mogul who's hell-bent on rehabilitating the reputations of supers. Along with his sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener), he pitches the Parrs a plan to change the public's perceptions of supers. But for for that, he needs Elastigirl — and not her husband.
It's a marked shift from the first film, which saw Mr. Incredible moonlighting as a super behind his wife's back for much of the movie, until she and the kids has to save him from an uber-fan turned enemy. (A commentary on stan culture before its time?) This time around, it's Bob's turn to stay home with the kids while Helen goes out to save the world.
I have to admit, I had reservations about this plot line when it was first announced. The risk of veering into "Mr. Mom" territory, showing a bumbling dad struggling to cope with the task of actually parenting his own children, was high. But creator and director Brad Bird handles the thread with a mix of comedy and earnest, endearing honesty that works. It helps that Bob's reaction to all this feels real: He cares about helping his son with math that has inexplicably changed since he learned it in school, and comforting his daughter when her date stands her up (it's partly his fault). He gleefully praises baby Jack-Jack when his powers first manifest during a delightful altercation with a raccoon. These things aren't trivial to him, nor are they framed as meaningless. But that doesn't mean that Bob doesn't wish he was the one out there fighting crime, or feel the sting of rejection that his wife was chosen over him as the damage control savior.
I would actually have been satisfied with a deep exploration of that dichotomy as the emotional crux of the film. Bao, the Pixar short that screens before the main feature — and the first to be directed by a woman — proves that filmmakers don't need huge stunts to make us laugh, sigh, and ugly cry in a matter of minutes. It's the story of a dumpling who magically comes to life, forming a parental bond with the lonely woman who created him. That's cute, and all, but creator Domee Shi uses this conceit to explore larger themes of identity. (I won't spoil it any more — go see it!)
But, back to the main feature: Bird adds a separate Big Theme to the mix, which crowds the field a bit more than is ideal. This comes in the form of a villain named Screenslaver, who seeks to prove humans' apathy, and increased dependence on digital devices, by using them for mind control. There's been some discussion that Bird's films serve as propaganda for Ayn Rand-ian Objectivist thinking, or the idea that not everyone can be "special." (Syndrome, the villain from the first movie, supposedly embodies Objectivism with his evil plan to make everyone a super: “When everyone’s super, no one is!"). Whether you agree or disagree with the politics of it (and for the record, Bird himself has denied any Rand-ian agenda), the Screenslaver element feels like a ploy to feed us vegetables while distracting us with action. And while that, in itself, isn't a bad thing, when you add spinach to the existing kale in the berry smoothie, it starts to get bitter.
Still, much like its predecessor, Incredibles 2 is a fun ride. Bird's dialogue is snappy, and Michael Giacchino's score is as zippy and jazzy as ever. The choice to keep the pseud0-early 1960s setting and aesthetics (I too, would like someone to gift me a house with a living room that doubles as a pool) is a good one – even if it further muddles the whole "people are addicted to technology and forgetting to communicate with each other" thing (they don't even have cell phones yet!).
Fan favorites Lucious Best, a.k.a Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) and agent Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks) are back, along with some new faces. Standout among them is Voyd, a new generation super voiced by Sophia Bush, whose journey to self-acceptance is worth its own movie spinoff. How do the equivalent of Muggle-born supers know what to do with their powers once they manifest? And where have they been hiding?
But perhaps Incredibles 2's greatest achievement is that it manages to feel like a superhero movie with well-designed action sequences while also poking fun at the genre. This was also the case with the first one, but in the 14 years between them, the superhero movie industry has metastasized into a behemoth empire not unlike the one Elastigirl is trying to fend off, so the wink is all the more appreciated.
If you're a fan of The Incredibles, you'll definitely find room in your heart for its sequel. And the trip to the theater is worth it just to catch a glimpse of Bao. We know Pixar can handle superheroes, but a film about an anthropomorphic dumpling that moves you to tears? That's a truly incredible.