Saturday, November 10, 2018

"Incredibles 2": review

The essential question for me, in watching "Incredibles 2" (yes, they dropped the "The"), was whether the new movie was worth a fourteen-year wait. "The Incredibles" came out in 2004, and it quickly became my all-time favorite Pixar movie: I loved the themes, the characters, the visuals, and above all, the elegant story structure, which must be the envy of screenwriters everywhere. How on earth can you top a movie like that?

The answer is that you can't, and I can't say that "Incredibles 2" was worth a fourteen-year wait. This isn't to say that I thought the new film was bad; it wasn't. It was perfectly watchable and had plenty of funny and entertaining moments. But if it sounds as if I'm damning with faint praise, well... I don't think I can help myself.

"Incredibles 2" is once again directed by Brad Bird, who also voices the eccentric superhero-costume designer Edna Mode. It stars Craig T. Nelson as Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible, Holly Hunter as Helen Parr/Elastigirl, Sarah Vowell as Violet Parr, Huck Milner as Dash Parr (taking over for Spencer Fox), Samuel L. Jackson as Lucius Best/Frozone, Bob Odenkirk as Winston Deavor, Katherine Keener as Evelyn Deavor, and Jonathan Banks as government prole Rick Dicker (taking over for the late Bud Luckey).

The movie begins pretty much where the previous one left off: with the Parr family fighting The Underminer (John Ratzenberger), who manages to get away. The fight with the Underminer causes enormous property damage, which once again sours the public to the idea of superheroes in its midst. But the fight also catches the eye of tycoon Winston Deavor, who thinks he's found a way to make superheroes legal—and palatable—again. The Parrs, desperate for financial stability after having lost their home (and Bob's insurance job) in the first movie, decide to listen to Deavor's proposal: a publicity campaign that focuses on Elastigirl, primarily because she causes less property damage than her husband does. Saying yes to the deal, the Parr family finds itself residing in a spacious, ultramodern house. Helen suits up and heads out, with great misgivings about leaving her family behind, while Bob stays home and tries his hand at some intensive parenting. Needless to say, Bob isn't very good at his new job; Dash gets stressed about math homework, Vi gets stressed about boys (specifically, Tony Rydinger from the first film), and baby Jack-Jack suddenly manifests a whole host of superpowers of which his parents had been, up to this point, unaware. Bob grows increasingly ragged over the course of the middle of the film.

Helen, meanwhile, saves a runaway train and encounters a new, mysterious villain named Screenslaver who uses TV screens to hypnotize people, who then do his bidding. Finding and defeating Screenslaver becomes Helen's top priority (the reveal of who Screenslaver is is meant to be a surprise, so I won't reveal anything here), and this needs to be done before a huge, Deavor-sponsored event in which a hundred world leaders are to come together and sign a writ making superheroes legal again the world over.

To use an Elastigirl pun, "Incredibles 2" doesn't stretch very far in terms of developing the characters of the Parr family. Jack-Jack begins the slow process of learning to master his powers, but by the end of the movie, he's essentially who he was at the end of the previous film. Violet shows that she's discovered some interesting new things that she can do with her forcefields, and Frozone has the chance to show off some moves not seen in the 2004 movie. Aside from that, though, Dash, Helen, and Bob don't do anything we haven't seen before, and many of the intra-family issues covered in the first film still linger as echoes in the sequel. The public's ambivalence about superheroes (called "supers" in this universe) is a carryover from 2004, so that's not new, either, and neither is Screenslaver's motivation, which is to turn the public utterly against superheroes.

One thing I did find interesting was the film's treatment of the character of Winston Deavor. Winston, with his permanently etched, cheesy "Better Call Saul" smile, comes off as smarmy and a bit creepy from the get-go, but when the villain's identity is revealed, it turns out that Winston is a good guy, after all. There's a moment during which Evelyn—who is Winston's sister—and Helen discuss Evelyn's brother; Evelyn hints that her brother is little more than an obsessive capitalist: "If I discovered the origin of the universe, my brother would find a way to market it as a foot-massager!"

Screenslaver also derides the consumer-capitalist nature of the public, accusing people of being lazy sheep who want superheroes so they can hide behind them and experience their adventures through media like television: people don't talk, but they watch talk shows; they don't play games, but they watch game shows, etc. Brad Bird, in writing this new movie, seems to be intent on erasing whatever rightie ideas he might have introduced back in 2004.

My major complaint is that this movie is so damn talky. Gone is the smooth, aerodynamic, show-don't-tell spirit of the first film; instead, we get tons of expository dialogue. While I'm happy that characters like Frozone get more to do, it would have been better for Bird to concentrate more on action and on visual storytelling. Not to say that the action sequences in the film are boring: they're actually quite good, with my favorite sequence being Helen's awesome rescue of the runaway train while riding a motorcycle that can break apart to accommodate her ability to stretch. As for the film's politics: I didn't find the feminist preachiness about grrrl power to be all that intrusive; as I've written before, I have no trouble with female protagonists, and I can't think of a single reason why Elastigirl shouldn't have the right to be front and center, doing her hero thing. And while the film has a laughable anti-capitalist message, this is undercut by the irony of Pixar's making such a hugely expensive animated film—a film that has earned almost 1.3 billion dollars at the global box office. As government agent Rick Dicker said in the first film: "Money, money, money, money, money."

But "Incredibles 2" feels less like something groundbreaking and more like a movie that's playing it safe. We get a deeper dive into the Parr family dynamic, but the problem with having the new story pick up right where the previous one left off is that we don't get to explore the more interesting issues that might result from the passage of time. The movie could have been set fifteen or twenty years after the 2004 film; Craig T. Nelson, who sounds distinctly older and slower now (he's 74! good God!), would have made more sense as a voice actor had there been such a time jump. If Brad Bird decides to make a "threequel," I hope it'll take place many, many years later.

Was "Incredibles 2" worth a fourteen-year wait? Not really. But taken on its own terms, it's a decent film that moves along at a healthy clip. It's got good visuals and a plot that's complex enough not to insult the intelligence of the adults in the audience. The one major plot twist is something you might see coming if you're perceptive enough, but overall, this movie goes down easy, even if it's nowhere near as good as its predecessor.

1 comment:

Charles said...

We saw this one a while back. I liked it, but I still like the first one better. I won't say it was disappointing, but, you know... it wasn't like it was the second coming of Christ or anything. It was a serviceable and enjoyable sequel. I saw it, and then went on with the business of living my life.

(The twist was a bit obvious, though... I mean, it was right there in the villain's name. Trying not to post spoilers here...)