There are two scenes that really stick out to me in the first incredibles film. Both deal with Mr. Incredible and his central arc (and make no mistake, while it is an ensemble piece, the biggest most emotional material rested on Bob Parr’s ample shoulders). In one he believes his family is dead and after a moment of bravado and cruelty he can’t pull off, he is wracked with silent legitimate tears, a man truly broken without and composure or pride left. Later, when confronted with the question of why he must save the day alone, he finally breaks down and says that it’s not for proof of ego, manhood, or machismo but because he can’t ever go through the thought of losing his family again. These are real moments, even if they are packed with the insulation of one of Pixar’s most pleasantly heightened realities.
For the sequel, which I should note up front is really a lot of fun, I never quite felt that tug of real emotional stakes and empathy. But we’ll circle back to that. The setup of the film is simple: the action setpiece the first film teased at its end is completed here and collateral damage leave the super-family in hot water with the government. In order to restore their reputation (and perhaps more importantly make ends meet), Elastigirl takes a job as a superhero ambassador for a wealthy corporation and its gung-ho CEO (Bob Odenkirk, one of two Breaking Bad alums joining the cast). This leaves Bob over his head with an angsty teen daughter, an energetic pre-teen son, and a baby whose powers are starting to emerge.
It’s a fun set-up, and while some may rankle at the sitcom style trouble Bob has managing the family, it’s ultimately in keeping with his larger than life characterization and has a pleasantly understated payoff around the midway point. And this side of the film also gives baby Jack-Jack a much needed showcase with a series of slapstick running gags that garner the film its biggest laughs. But on the other side of things is Elastigirl’s plot which involves her tracking a hypnotic supervillain whose identity and motivations are sadly pretty easy to figure out. She has some dandy action setpieces that showcase director Brad Bird’s proclivity for creative physics. As in the first film, characters bounce, stretch, and hit like they look like they should on the comics page, making for what I would consider the best superhero action seen on film.
But unlike Syndrome in the first film, whose ultimate goals, origin, and means made for a thematically and emotionally rich journey, the ScreenSlaver feels like something of an afterthought–a villain with an interesting enough message that doesn’t quite tie into the rest of the film. Moreover, there’s no real threat here, and none of the character ever feel in danger (the film has no place for another favorite moment from the first where Helen tells the kids that the people they are dealing with will not hesitate to kill them).
But honestly, for all those criticisms it’s a really fun movie. It’s well-paced, beautifully animated, and has a fun story with some twists and turns. I’d say its unfair to hold it up to the masterpiece that is the first Incredibles, but frankly, I think this rather good sequel still manages to highlight why sequels are so unnecessary. Nothing feels as fresh, the story feels more contrived, and the character arcs present seem to repeat what came before (differentiating where this film leaves its character from where the last left them is hard to do). This isn’t a new issue of course, Die Hard 2 struggled to get John McClane back in a position to be bloodied and shot at and Pixar’s own Toy Story 3 and Finding Dory copied the messages from their last films while ignoring the progress made.
And perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that this film feels relatively slight compared to the first. There’s no material of character wracked with grief over near-death experiences or even questioning whether a marriage will last. It’s a fun jolt of lovingly developed action in a somewhat too-neat package. It’s not quite the sequel I wanted, but it tries damned hard to get there.