It can be difficult, on a nostalgic and intuitive level, to criticise Pixar for their attitude to franchises they created and realised with generally breath-taking skill and wit. Yet watching Incredibles 2, despite moments of visual excellence and lacerating irony, one can conclude that they simply don’t know best. This is not a bad film; nor is it a necessary one.
We open as The Incredibles closed – ‘The Underminer’ is attacking, and our caped family spring into action to stop him or achieve something approximating a successful intervention. Their chaotic attempts are observed by eager fan Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who is keen to use the power of spin, and microcameras, to rehabilitate superheroes in the public eye. His laconic sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) is the brains behind the operation, and is keen to push a female future by foregrounding the more controlled heroism of matriarch Helen’s Elastigirl (Holly Hunter).
This leaves Mr. Incredible, Bob (Craig T. Nelson), to care for the kids as a stay-at-home dad, learning the supposedly surprising lesson that, gee, raising three kids is hard. Tack on a supervillain mystery about as sophisticated as Donald Trump’s trade policy, throw in a few jokes about adolescence, and you’ve got to the bottom of Incredibles 2’s plotting. This is cookie-cutter stuff, unwilling to stray into complex territory, and disappointing as a result.
The film’s standout moments fall into two categories. The first is comprised of occasional moments of stunning animated imagery, whether the bewildering rays of a cage of lightbulbs or a helicopter chase through metropolitan skies at night. More memorable, though, are the thankfully many scenes involving Jack Jack, the infant baby of the family. Bob, teenage Violet and young Dash are all barely able to control this multi-powered bundle of energy, who provides a measure of random chance amongst the otherwise staid predictability.
Incredibles 2’s best scene by a distance involves Jack Jack facing off against a night-time critter, and his chuckles, fury and dimension shifts are a breath of fresh air. That his starring moments all boil down to effectively slapstick comedy suggests that the film could have been well served by refocussing in this direction. A related cameo from cape-hating designer Edna Mole is heartening and well-choreographed, but brief. Instead, we watch Mr. Incredible bewilderingly refuse to respect his wife, and theoretically feel warmed when he relents without a clear sign of having repudiated his old position.
Director Brad Bird has helmed some animated classics in Ratatouille, The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Here, though, he seems to be running either on autopilot or on empty. There is a lack of clarity that is at odds with Pixar’s usual singularity of vision, condemning Incredibles 2 to the sadly growing pile of the studio’s also-rans. Their head honchos must surely acknowledge the disproportionate quality risk attached to their sequels, but creeping commercialism will presumably dull their instincts.
Still, that Pixar’s mediocre work is enjoyable and occasionally wonderful is no great sin, and this caper does distract pleasurably. It simply brings with it the sad sense that they, and we, would once again have been better off leaving well alone.