A weary plea to the pow­ers that be

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - NEWS | FILM FRIDAY - BARRY HERTZ

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.

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