So, last weekend my partner and I went to see The Incredibles 2. No, we don’t have children, and we weren’t bringing younger siblings, cousins, nieces, or nephews either. Much like How to Train Your Dragon, and Shrek, The Incredibles has become a brilliant example of a movie made for children with broad adult appeal. And that’s why we were going. Partially the nostalgia of seeing something we grew up with in a new light, but also because it was a light and fun movie we were interested in seeing on it’s own merits.
Understandably, I think, I was nervous about this movie. The main factor in my nerves was the long interval between the previous movie and this one, but I was also concerned that Pixar had come back to The Incredibles to milk the cash cow and not necessarily because they had an important or valuable continuation of the story. I’d watched my brother playing The Incredibles: Rise of the Underminer video game, and had been less than impressed with it, so I was worried that the next movie would be no better. Yet, much like many book-to-movie adaptations, the appeal was much stronger than the anxiety. I worried that it would be a movie, like Eragon that left me frustrated and disappointed, but wanted to feel that frustration and disappointment even if it was a bad movie.
Oh how wrong I was.
Before I really dive into the movie itself, I do want to take a moment to talk about the animated short that proceeds the movie, Bao. Bao is really beautifully put together, the animation is soft and flows well, and you can really tell that it was important to the creators to get cultural information (like the making of the dough) correct. If you want to hear more about the behind the scenes work, and exciting things like Bao being the first female-directed Pixar short, I’d really recommend listening to this NPR Interview with the creator, Domee Shi. But, and perhaps more importantly, the short focused on two things we don’t see enough of in film or fiction in general, women, and people of color. Even more specifically, Chinese women. Too often the only portrayals of asian women are over-sexualized or reduced to the tiger-mom stereotype. Bao’s main character, rather than being a tiger mom, is a Chinese woman struggling with empty-nest syndrome, and what happens when a dumpling she’s made comes to life. I won’t go into more specifics because I don’t want to spoil the short here, but I do want to say that the subject, the grace with which it’s handled, and the bold way it copes with some potentially dark themes, make it a worthy addition both to Pixar’s library of animated shorts, and also specifically to The Incredibles 2.
Why is Bao specifically a strong addition to The Incredibles 2? –Spoiler Warning–. Because The Incredibles 2 continues the legacy of the first movie in that it’s a movie about family first, hidden inside of a movie about superheroes. And for a movie that’s subject matter is radically different than it’s action, it’s remarkably well done. This movie, even more than its predecessor, lets Elastagirl take center stage. No longer is she rescuing her husband, instead she’s standing on her own legs and proving, in some truly breathtaking action scenes, that her powers are just as impressive as anyone else’s in the movie. It also shows off the analytical thought and flavor to her heroism much more explicitly than it was shown in The Incredibles. But don’t think that Mr. Incredible is taking a backseat in this movie. While his wife is off taking care of the daring-do, Bob Parr stays at home, taking care of a family life in chaos after the events of the previous movie. From Violet’s boy trouble and teeenage angst, to Dash’s hyperactivity and homework, all the way through a baby with many powers and no control, Bob’s job as a dad earns him the name Mr. Incredible as much as any of the heroism of his glory days.
While I, like many of the movie’s core fan base, hoped that the new movie would look at a more grown-up Parr family, Jack-Jack in particular, and was skeptical of releasing a movie so close to the original timeline when the real world has spent 14 years moving on. And I admit, the first ten minutes of the movie I carried that skepticism with me. It picks up practically from the very moment the last movie ended, with the family leaping into action against the Underminer, and a brief action sequence later being arrested for their unlawful actions as superheroes. The changes to the graphics and character design are most noticeable in this sequence. Mostly the changes are upgrades, more detail, textures with greater depth and complexity, actions scenes that feel faster, sparkly and new. But I do think it was a risk to start the movie so close to the ending of the last, knowing that those changes were going to be there. It’s a risk that pays off in the major actions sequences both right away, and especially later in the movie, but don’t be surprised if the first few minutes feel just the tiniest bit off. Especially if you, like me, grew up with the movie.
For those who fell in love with the message that not everyone is special, or has to be, in the first movie, never fear, that message is still deeply a part of this new Incredibles, but I found it more nuanced. Tempering the message that not everyone is special were moments that highlighted that people with different skill sets are valuable not only as individuals, but to one another. It also made it clear that talent, ability, powers, specialness in short, aren’t the only things that matter, nor do they always make life easier. Most of the characters in the movie suffer in some way for their powers, some directly because of them, and others because of the responsibility they feel to use them.
I’d also argue that one of the side characters, Winston Deavor, is the first example of a non-super shown to be making a major impact in the world. One might argue for Edna Mode or Rick Dicker, but Edna is also arguably a super no other designer is able to produce suits of the quality she is. And she is clearly a genius at the very least in that she is able to adapt and produce fabrics capable of doing things that seem outright impossible. Quite possible Edna is an under-recognized Super herself. And Rick Dicker is most assuredly a regular person ally, but he’s doing clandestine work that really only affects Supers, he’s not making a larger-world impact other than keeping ex-heroes out of jail. He’s largely just doing his job, and the fact that he’s so world-weary doesn’t speak highly of the job he’s doing. Winston Deavor is explicitly nothing special when it comes to intelligence, in fact he’s a little naive, and he himself admits that no one really thought he would be able to run his parent’s company. Despite this he helms his corporation well, uses his money and understanding of financial systems to accomplish positive real-world goals, and his main skillset, sales, is one anyone might have. He’s no average-joe, not as a super-rich CEO, but he’s very deeply human.
Although I do somewhat question the decision to have another villain who relies on technical prowess to play in the big league with the heroes, that villain very much fits the retro-futurism setting of the Incredibles. And they soften the anti-genius vibe by humanizing Edna Mode and at least implying that Jack-Jack may be a kind of genius in the making himself. The message becomes more about how one uses technical prowess and expertise and less about how bad guys like Syndrome and our new villain abuse the power computers and other electronic devices give them.
I still think the movies best moments aren’t about the heroism, despite it’s dominating the screen, the best moments are when Bob and Helen are coping with real life issues and real life tensions in their relationship that would exist whether or not they were Supers. Bob is still having his mid-life crisis, and struggling with responsibilities Helen had always managed for him. And, in this new movie, he must also cope with the fact that Helen is the one taking the helm professionally and as a hero. Helen must overcome her need to mother-hen and fear that Bob isn’t up to the job as a dad the same way he is up for the job as a hero. Both must cope with the fact that their children currently face a world in which they will be judged and looked down on by those who know what they are, a world in which they must hide their powers and fake normality. Both must cope with their own ideas of morality coming into conflict with a system that really isn’t designed to accommodate exceptionalism.
All of these are real world issues that will sound familiar to some, if not most, of The Incredible’s audience. Moreover, it’s a kids movie that focuses in a lot on the parents. Another rarity. The fact that the issues are real, and the character reactions to those issues feel equally genuine, is what made the first movie such a success with adults and teenagers as well as kids. The second movie brings all the same flare. I would argue, even, that The Incredibles 2 did a better job tackling the real world inside of it’s fantasy than the first.
P.S. No review of this movie is complete without at least one disclaimer, this movie is NOT epilepsy friendly. If you have any disorder, seizure related or not, that is potentially triggered by rapidly flashing lights, maybe give this one a pass. At the very least I would recommend waiting until the movie is available as a DVD or Blu-Ray so you can watch at home and with someone there who knows what to do should certain scenes cause a problem.