A weary plea to the powers that be
Pixar’s Incredibles 2 has all the elements of a smash – but instead, it’s just another big, annoying and mostly pointless superhero exercise
This past weekend, a giant baby took over Toronto. No, not that baby – he was busy causing havoc in Charlevoix, Que. – but a literal giant infant. One made of plastic, inflated with hot air and resembling Jack-Jack Parr, the adorably superpowered tyke featured in the new Pixar film, Incredibles 2.
Positioned in a west-end parking lot, the 40-foot-tall promotional device was equal parts perplexing (poor Jack-Jack was tethered to the ground with a dozen incongruous black ropes, creating a scene familiar to fans of 50 Shades of Grey) and prosaic. Sure, another enormous marketing activation from the fine folks at corporate behemoth Disney. Why not, whatever.
But the odd and completely unnecessary PR – is there a moviegoer on Earth whose box-office decisions will be swayed by a giant balloon? – is also emblematic of the film it is promoting. Incredibles 2 (not “The Incredibles 2,” as definite articles are strictly pre-Facebook) is big, annoying and, mostly, pointless.
Although it’s been 14 years since writerdirector Brad Bird’s The Incredibles hit theatres, the sequel picks up not two minutes after the events of the first: The Parr family, having shed any government-bred stigma over their superpowers, are back to fighting evildoers in their 1960s-ish allAmerican metropolis. The film’s kick-off set piece finds the clan – strongman father Bob/Mr. Incredible, stretchy mom Helen/ Elastigirl, invisible eldest daughter Violet, superfast middle son Dash and the multitalented and aforementioned Jack – attempting to stop a runaway vehicle of destruction before it hits City Hall, mostly succeeding.
After witnessing the family’s derring-do and the public’s warm reaction to the antics, telecommunications mogul and superhero superfan Winston Deavor (voiced with just the right amount of enthusiastic smarm by Bob Odenkirk) offers the Parrs a unique opportunity: Allow him to market the family’s heroics for a captivated audience and help convince the federal government to reconsider its ban on those with “special abilities.” But to offer a friendlier, less-destructive face for this initiative, Deavor wants to test-run his plan with Elastigirl alone – leaving the alpha Mr. Incredible (a weary but fun Craig T. Nelson) to play homemaker.
There is a slice of intriguing social commentary here, with Bird
(back writing and directing) seemingly keen on examining the emotional labour that keeps a family together. But that potentially insightful thread gets lost as Bird competes to satisfy the requirements of sequels – louder, bigger, longer, but not necessarily better. As a result, Bird lightly riffs on the idea of what it means to run a household in a Mr. Mom-ish fashion, when he should in fact be interrogating it.
Pixar may produce films aimed at children, but the Disney animation arm has proven before that it can fit big, complex ideas into shiny, squeaky-clean packages. Bird, in particular, has a history of making films with intellectual rigor – take the Objectivist fervor he brought to his work on the first Incredibles, as well as The Iron Giant and Ratatouille. The director’s Ayn Rand-ian leanings are queasy – and near toxic, in the case of his last project, Tomorrowland – but at least they are concepts and philosophies worth arguing about. Here, Bird’s effort feels overstuffed with corporate obligations and hollow of creative and intellectual ambition – it is a film searching for an idea, and vice versa.
This aimlessness is best reflected in Bird’s shrug of a plot. Like its central hero Elastigirl (voiced with the delightful drawl of Holly Hunter), the narrative of Incredibles 2 quickly stretches itself thin. Just like the first film, the story pivots on a family struggling to stay together but separated because of the forces of the outside world. This entry’s villain, revealed in a flat thirdact twist, is a rehash of the first film’s antagonist Syndrome – another average human who believes that superpowered folk have no place lording their gifts over the world (as with Black Panther’s infinitely more charismatic Killmonger, the bad guy here isn’t exactly wrong). Even the action feels repetitive. The stakes are never in question, the damage is infinitely collateral and the film’s grand finale lazily echoes its very beginning, with the Parrs again forced to stop one huge thing from hitting another huge thing.
Fortunately, the one element distinguishing Incredibles 2 from the similarly wan sequels flooding the summer movie season is its zippy, often gorgeous animation. Everything in Bird’s world pops with a bright retro charm that is irresistible. The water and hair effects are especially astounding, a technical feat that Bird exploits nicely when he has Violet quickly shake out her wet hair. The split-second moment is like glimpsing the future of animation, where the real and the unreal fold into each other.
Still, by the time Violet and the rest of her family fall into predictable third-act tropes, Incredibles 2 feels more itchy than revolutionary. Nothing against the occasional zip-zam-pow theatrics of the superhero movie, but the genre is quickly becoming an invasive species. The Incredibles succeeded by balancing domestic drama and attentive characterization with the expected comic-book explosions. Here, nearly everything is drowned out by the clang of Disney’s superhero industrial complex machinery.
That deafening noise will likely be extraordinarily profitable, though, and it is a good bet that deep inside Pixar’s offices, Incredibles 3 is in development. Unlike that giant Jack-Jack balloon, Hollywood’s franchise mentality is a tricky thing to deflate.
Incredibles 2 opens June 15.
As with its central hero Elastigirl, above, voiced by Holly Hunter, the narrative of Incredibles 2 quickly stretches itself thin.