Incredibles 2 is a fascinating mess of a movie. Brad Bird is not a man afraid of having adult themes in a children’s story. But with Incredibles 2 we have the curious problem of too many ideas. All in all, not a horrible problem to have; most Hollywood films do well to have one idea.
Bird’s problem is the lack of a unifying idea. Incredibles 2 is a story with many stories all taking place beside each other but only ever really connecting at the end. Except they never really do; not emotionally anyway. Instead, it feels more as if the stories merge only so we could get to the climax.
Taking place mere seconds after the first Incredibles we see the Parr family try to save the city from the Underminer (John Ratzenberger). Helen, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Bob. Mr. Incredible (Craig. T. Nelson), Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner) and of course baby Jack-Jack(Eli Fucile and Maeve Andrews) all pitch in and stop the burrowing heister. If you recall being a Super, is illegal. Not to mention the collateral damage incurred from the battle the Parrs are arrested for quite literally saving the day.
So that’s story one: The Parrs dealing with an unjust law. But Bird never really plays with the idea. In a motel room later that night the family has a riveting conversation about how to deal with an unjust law. Shocking for a children’s movie that such a conversation is even broached. But again, while the conversation is nuanced, witty, and engrossing, it’s never really tackled again.
Helen, Bob, and Lucius – Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) are being courted by the charismatic billionaire super-fan Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener). The two wish to repeal the law banning the Supers. They believe that through a PR campaign they can change the public’s mind. Bob is over the moon believing it’s his chance to return to the spotlight. Unfortunately, the siblings think Elastigirl is the best bet to start the campaign off.
Story number two: Helen gets a job. Winston and Evelyn will fund her, support her, and essentially brand her while Bob stays at home watching the kids. Bob visibly struggles to maintain a positive outlook but it’s clear he believes he’s the right man for the job.
Helen was only earlier that night arguing they should obey the law. However, Helen’s excitement at the prospect of being a hero doesn’t ring false. It adds a layer of complexity because her argument for staying in hiding was rooted in the safety of her family. She doesn’t accept the job on the spot; she asks to have time to think about it. It’s only after Bob begrudgingly gives her his support does she take the job.
The Deavor’s give the Parrs a stylish new house, a new Elastigirl motorbike, and a new suit for a new look. When Bob sees the motorbike he’s shocked to learn his wife knows how to drive it. “I used to have one back in the day. I had a mohawk, too.” Bob takes this new information about his wife in stride as she tears off into the sunset to save the world.
Helen’s story of a woman re-discovering herself while also trying to prove herself feels unto itself. It doesn’t really connect with story one except in the motive. Emotionally or thematically it feels like apart from the rest. The connective tissue of the plot is still there but the unjust law feels more like MacGuffin, a plot device, than anything.
Story number three: Bob becomes Mr. Mom. No surprise he is less than incredible, to start off with. Violet’s first date with the popular Tony (Michael Bird) gets waylaid because Bob told Agent Dicker (Jonathan Banks) the boy had seen Violet without her mask. Dicker interrogates the boy and then wipes his mind of any memory of the incident, and of Violet.
Dash struggles with math and Jack-Jack exhibits not just one but innumerable superpowers. Bob’s ego curtails his common sense so he keeps all of this hidden from Helen so she can concentrate on her job. Although, Bob does eventually see his way through the fog of his own perceived emasculation. He doesn’t hit anything or destroy anything. In, what has to be one of the most mature moments of any superhero movie, Bob thinks it through.
Bob tosses and turns in bed and realizes his frustrations with the children is because he’s trying to do everything as if he knows everything. In a wonderful moment of self-realization, Bob gets out of bed, picks up the math book and tries to learn how to do the math. He calls Dicker and tries to straighten out the Tony situation while also dealing with Jack-Jack.
After leaving Jack-Jack with Edna Mode (Brad Bird) she spends the night testing the child much to both of their delights. “He is intelligent and I am delightful. We deserve each other.” She tells Bob as he arrives to get the diagnosis.
All of this is fine. It’s good. But the stories never feel as if they feed into each other much less off each other. Incredibles 2 lacks any coherent or underlying theme. It never feels jumbled but it also never feels interconnected. The story lacks any emotional underpinning to support it.
Despite Incredibles 2 lack of a cogent theme Brad Bird has, along with the Pixar animators, crafted a spectacularly gorgeous movie. Yes, Incredibles 2 has problems. But, while they might affect the emotional resonance of certain moments or the overall story, they do not deter from the sensational amount of fun within the story. Live action big-budget special effects extravaganzas are often hampered by how the labor is divided. The filmmakers and the special effects studio will communicate but rarely does one have any say over the other.
The result is great special effects but oftentimes rote, unimaginative, or choppy camera work. With animation, Bird is able to control all aspects and the result is one pristine action set piece after another. Helen as Elastigirl must stop a runaway train on her first night out. The sequence is visually as taut and effective as anything from a James Bond movie.
Being a Superhero is illegal and the Parrs are struggling against an unjust law. Maybe I’m so used to seeing Superheros as a metaphor for something else I find it perplexing when they aren’t. The conversation at the dinner table about how to react to an unjust law is tantalizing because of its complexity and its place in a kids film.
But the conversation is never picked up again. It’s never addressed or resolved. Incredibles 2 asks a lot of questions but it also has about fifty answers for every question. Helen discusses with Evelyn about what it’s like to be the only woman in the room. She then spins the conversation to ask why they are the only ones in the room. Again fascinating, but once the scene ends so does the conversation and thus the idea.
Perhaps I’m thinking too much. Pixar is so celebrated for their ability for complex emotional storytelling that sometimes we forget who the movies are supposed to be for. If the audience at my showing is any indication, Incredibles 2 is a kids movie. Incredibles 2 isn’t dumb and it never talks down to them.
Michael Giacchino’s score is a rarity in superhero movies. Swing mixed with jazz set to a staccato rhythm, the music enhances the sort of “future of tomorrow feel” the Incredibles 2 inhabits so well. Music plays such a paltry mediocre role in almost every other modern superhero movie it’s refreshing to hear one so distinctive and alive.
The humor is accessible for all ages because it doesn’t rely on pop culture references. At one point in the film, Jack-Jack is watching an old black and white movie on the screen. A man is robbing the bank with a little black face mask. The baby looks outside and sees a raccoon whose face seems eerily similar. The resulting fight is as inventive, fun, and more colorful than anything Marvel or DC have put forth.
Screenslaver (Bill Wise) is an interesting villain until we begin to suspect he might not be the actual villain. Predictability isn’t always a hindrance but by the end I found myself wishing they had stuck with the Underminer. His joyous cry of “Prepare–to be undermined!” is a rare perfect jewel of dialogue.
Incredibles 2 may not be a masterpiece but that doesn’t mean it’s not really good. Kids movies rarely have characters who have interesting conversations or relatable problems. Bird isn’t phoning it in and the script never feels as if it’s slouching or pandering. Quite frankly I love it a little because of its problems. I wish more superhero movies even acknowledged half the issues Incredibles 2 even hints at. It’s a sad time at the movies when the kids’ movie is more thoughtful than the ones made for grownups. But hey, at least someone is making them.