Friday, June 15, 2018

Incredibles 2: Close, but not quite

Incredibles 2 (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.15.18

The frequently delightful and long-awaited Incredibles 2 (14 years!) has much to recommend it, and writer/director Brad Bird obviously used the time wisely; his sequel avoids many of the pitfalls that characterize the often dismaying “sophomore curse.”

When you're taking the baby for a family stroll, confronting a super-villain can be awkward:
from left, Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Dash, Violet and baby Jack-Jack decide how best to
handle the subterranean-dwelling Underminer.
That said, this second outing lacks the spark, snap and freshness of its predecessor. The pacing is uneven — the first act is particularly slow — and the balance is off. The numerous sequences with infant Jack-Jack are undeniably hilarious — a hyper-edited encounter with a raccoon could be extracted as a terrific cartoon short — but the baby steals too much focus from the rest of his family ... and, indeed, from the core plot.

As the first film made abundantly clear, the super-heroic Parr family functions best when it functions together ... and this story waits far too long to deliver on that promise.

Events kick off in the immediate aftermath of the previous adventure. Super-powered crime fighters remain illegal: The government and general public still are unwilling to overlook the collateral damage that results when the good guys do their best to bring down super-villains such as the Underminer and his massive conical drill (which broke through to the surface world in the first film’s final scene).

(Geek alert: Given that Bird clearly intended the Parr family as an homage to Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four, the Underminer is a similarly droll wink-and-nod to the Mole Man, whom the FF battled in their debut November 1961 comic book.)

Despite the best efforts of Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), teenage daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) and adolescent son Dash (Huckleberry Milner), the Underminer’s drill takes out a massive swath of downtown Municiberg. Adding insult to injury, the villain escapes.

Worse yet, longtime colleague and “fixer” Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks), whose Super Relocation Program has helped the Parrs — in their civilian identities — evade public censure, informs them that his division has just been shuttered by the government. Bob, Helen and their children are on their own ... and homeless, thanks to events in the first film. Dicker’s last bit of generosity is a two-week stay in the amusingly droll Safari Court Motel.

Which is a good opportunity to acknowledge the wonderful degree to which production designer Ralph Eggleston re-creates the opulently nostalgic, mid-century modern look that Bird makes equally important in this universe: the cool, flamboyant elegance of James Bond, Derek Flint and TV shows such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Jonny Quest (the latter granted a cameo here). Super powers and ultra-high-tech gadgetry blend smoothly with the bright colors and clean lines of a 1950s ambiance that isn’t quite the way it happened, but more the way we think it happened.

“It’s the retro future that never became,” Eggleston explains, in the press notes: a perfect description for the layout and animation style that characterizes everything from architecture, cars and municipal trappings, along with the stylized characters themselves (and a droll riff on the opening Disney logo).


Faced with the prospect of once again having to obtain a civilian job, Bob — also chafing at the possibility of having to retire his super-suit for good — is overjoyed when they’re contacted by sibling telecommunications billionaires Winston and Evelyn Deavor (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener). Suave, savvy and enthusiastically talented publicist Winston feels that the world’s “supers” have gotten a bad rap; the brilliant and more laid-back Evelyn provides the tech half of their successful business equation.

The Deavors’ solution: Re-cast the narrative, by showcasing Elastigirl as a quick-thinking problem solver who can thwart baddies and rescue folks without flattening the surrounding landscape (as the impetuous, fools-go-where-angels-fear-to-tread Bob inevitably does). Shift public sentiment, and governments will be forced to follow.

Old-fashioned Bob — the hilariously blustering Nelson trying to avoid blatant chauvinism — gamely agrees to stay home as a “house Dad,” little realizing that his parenting skills are about to endure the arrival of baby Jack-Jack’s nascent powers.

This is a clever switch on Bird’s part, since in the first film Helen stayed home while the mega-strong Bob — as Mr. Incredible — went on clandestine “missions” directed by a mysterious woman residing on the equally mysterious island of Nomanisan. (Say it out loud.) This time Bob stays home while Helen gets the spotlight, immediately confronting the hypnotic powers of a vengeful super-villain who calls himself Screenslaver.

And, thanks to clever media manipulation by the Deavors, Elastigirl quickly becomes a popular champion.

Poor Bob, meanwhile, can’t begin to handle Jack-Jack’s increasingly chaotic behavior. Bird’s script quite cleverly addresses the utter impossibility of a parent forced to deal with a super-powered infant.

A charming side-story involves the outspoken and socially awkward Violet’s effort to secure a date with a longtime school crush, while preserving her secret identity. Violet also is gifted with a dry sarcastic wit, delivered with killer precision by Vowell, best known in her civilian life as an author, historian, journalist and social commentator who spent 12 years as a contributing editor for Public Radio International’s This American Life.

Actually, allthe voice talent is terrific: from the long-suffering anguish that Nelson brings to Bob Parr; to the affectionate sauciness that Hunter gives Helen; to the frantic agitation that Jackson gives fellow superhero Frozone, concealed behind his civilian identity as Lucius Best (and still getting brow-beaten by his never-seen wife). Keener, as well, gives Evelyn Deavor a wry, comradely warmth to which Helen Parr immediately bonds.

Young Eli Fucile even makes Jack-Jack’s baby-talk blather unexpectedly comprehensible. And yes, we renew ties with the riotously condescending Edna “E” Mode (voiced by Bird), tech genius and fashion designer for all the best superheroes.

On the other hand...

Dash doesn’t get a similar side story in which to shine, which is a shame; he definitely gets short shrift (no pun intended) in this sequel.

More crucially, the film sags badly with the introduction of a gaggle of “wannabe supers” encouraged to “come out” in the wake of Elastigirl’s fresh acclaim. Tongue-tied Void (Sophia Bush) is reasonably interesting, with her ability to create well-timed dimensional rifts — shades of the video game Portal! — but the rest are ill-conceived at best, and dumb jokes at worst. (A hot lava-spewing senior citizen dubbed Reflux? Seriously?)

Bird veers disastrously into self-parody with this super-lame sextet, all of whom badly interfere with the more serious character interactions and the story’s core “family unity” message. Given the way Pixar movie scripts are known to be fine-tuned, I’m greatly surprised Bird got away with this.

Michael Giacchino returns for the scoring duties, and his soundtrack has all the fast-paced orchestral pizzazz that fueled the first film, not to mention one of the all-time jazziest title themes.

As has become tradition, the film is preceded by a Pixar short: Bao, a fable that focuses on a lonely Chinese woman suffering from empty nest syndrome, who receives an unexpected second chance at motherhood. The animation is lush and rounded in a manner that contrasts nicely with Bird’s feature, and director Domee Shi has a marvelous touch with the dialogless storytelling that characterizes Pixar shorts. 

That said, the story is rather bizarre, even by Pixar standards, although it resolves cleverly.

Incredibles 2 is certain to be a hit, but it nonetheless lacks the discipline and careful story structure that made its predecessor a classic. But as I’ve noted before, even a not-quite-perfect Pixar entry is considerable superior to most films.

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