Several times in the past year I’ve praised movies for “not trying too hard.”
It’s an admirable quality in this age of over-the-top superhero action, as franchise films and sequels keep getting bigger and longer, with more and more characters and hyperactive set-pieces dragging on forever.
Fortunately, “Incredibles 2” avoids these pitfalls.
The long-awaited follow-up to Pixar’s 2004 hit certainly has plenty of excitement; but writer-director Brad Bird keeps a handful of action scenes clear, crisp and brief, while leavening the story with down-to-earth ideas: family and parenting, plus our culture’s mesmeric addiction to electronics -- and, as it turns out, to superheroes too.
The movie is preceded by a live-action apology from several cast members (Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Samuel L. Jackson) for making us wait 14 years -- though really, it wasn’t much longer than we waited for “Finding Dory.” Then there’s the usual Pixar short -- in this case, a surreal but touching Asian-family piece whose themes, for once, tie in nicely with the feature.
The actual film takes up shortly after the first, with a society that has outlawed superpowers like those in the talented Parr family: Dad/Mr. Incredible; Mom/ Elastigirl; daughter Violet and son Dash, who have various powers; and baby Jack-Jack, whose abilities … well, let’s just say he can fight off raccoons.
Then a tycoon named Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) contacts them with a plan to reinstate our heroes, and Mom (Hunter) is chosen to intercede in any sort of upcoming crisis -- leaving Dad (Nelson) at home with the kids.
Of course there’s something fishy about this, but Bird handles the storyline with a light touch, being neither too twisty nor too predictable. He also makes room for the first film’s beloved Edna Mode (voiced by Bird himself!), as well as Frozone (Jackson) -- not to mention a cool plot development in which the kids alone must save the day.
In this way, Bird continues the earlier movie’s focus on how all members of the family need one another. By giving the action to Mom, he frontlines the gender-role reversal that seems to be so popular these days; yet here, the device does not feel hackneyed or self-conscious because it’s so carefully balanced by Dad’s valor in the role of reluctant house-husband and homework-helper. As Frozone puts it, “Done properly, parenting is a heroic activity.”
Bird’s meditations on electronics and superheroes come from the movie’s villain -- nicely named Screenslaver: “Superheroes,” he tells us, “are part of your brainless desire to replace true experience with simulation. You want superheroes to protect you, and you make yourselves ever more powerless in the process. You are no longer in control.”
That’s just a sample of the smart dialog, which also includes one lesson Edna learned after caring for the hyperactive Jack-Jack: “Any solution involving cookies will inevitably result in the demon baby.”
That’s good writing, and Bird deserves gratitude for creating a smart, funny film that never tries to be “better than the first one.”
That would have been truly incredible.
“The Incredibles 2,”
written & directed by Brad Bird
Run time: 118 min.
* * * (out of four)
Rated PG for action sequences and some brief mild language