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Incredibles 2

(2018) *** Pg
118 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Director: Brad Bird. Cast: Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Vowell, Samuel L. Jackson, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener.

/content/films/5114/1.jpgWhen you live by the hype, you don't necessarily have to die by it. That's one lesson of Incredibles 2, the long-awaited Pixar sequel that fails to reach the heights of Pixar's best but remains impressive all the same. That is, of course, because Incredibles 2 lives by more than hype: it also lives by cinematic and CGI-animated craft, top vocal talent, and narrative competence. It's just that—as written and directed by Brad Bird, returning to his Pixar baby after 14 years—expectations may be more in the realm of the Toy Story sequels, which took distinct storytelling risks while deepening our emotional investment in the characters.

And Incredibles 2 ain't that kind of rodeo. It's another issue of the Incredibles comic book, another big-scale adventure with full-throttle action sequences, a bit of mystery, and career complications testing the structural integrity of this nuclear family of superheroes. Incredibles 2 plays it safe, and thus it works, just with a ceiling on its excellence. Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter return as Bob and Helen Parr, a.k.a. Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl. They're the proud parents of teenage Violet (Sarah Vowell), boy Dashiell (now Huckleberry Milner, stepping in for Spencer Fox), and baby Jack Jack, each of whom has a super power or two (or several?). Picking up where the 2004 film left off, the Incredible family powers up to protect Municiberg from the Underminer, but the collateral damage and failure to apprehend the inciting supervillain turn the political tide against "supers" again, the use of their powers for vigilante justice again outlawed. (Also affected: ice-powered hero Frozone, again voiced by the ever-lively Samuel L. Jackson.)

This issue, already legislated in the first film, feels like old ground, but it's also the first of a handful of squandered ideas. Incredibles 2 doesn't find a reason to revert in satirizing the nature of cyclical politics, just as a fleeting mention of "supers" as "illegals" would've been better left out since it insultingly passes in and out of the movie without any justification through relevance or insight. Granted, Incredibles 2 aims to please kids as job one, which translates into whiz-bang blockbuster scripting with enough activity to occupy each character (if not always a character "arc"). Surely some adults will notice, however, when Bird introduces the film's sole genuinely interesting idea—the televized distraction and narcotization of the public decried by a villain called The Screenslaver (Bill Wise)—only to brush it aside as a red herring. ("Every meaningful experience must be packaged and delivered to you," The Screenslaver knowingly intones.)

Instead, Incredibles 2 returns to investigating the tension between external and secret identities (which get in the way of Violet dating her first boyfriend) and what happens when Helen goes back to work and Bob has to play Mr. Mom, troubleshooting Violet's depression, Dash's lessons in the "New Math," and Jack Jack's superpowered growing pains. Helen's mission comes under the auspices of telecommunications giant Devtech, run by Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener). One big plus for the sequel is its determination to lean into female empowerment (whether it be heroic or villainous), apropos of a 1960s setting that hovers around the time of The Feminine Mystique and a 2018 release amidst a fresh push for women's voices. Most prominently, Helen's pragmatism and skill prove more valuable in the workplace than Bob's headlong recklessness, although they share the conviction that one should do good because it's right.

The shiny surfaces leave the biggest impression in this franchise, and they have their own inherent value, even if the novelty of a Fantastic Four pastiche has faded in the intervening years. The robustnessness and texture of CGI animation have made leaps and bounds in fourteen years, even as the sequel recommits to its colorful, manic aesthetic. Bird once more expertly choreographs the action sequences and attends merrily to James Bond-ian gadgetry and Ken Adam-esque production designs—while, but of course, reprising his role as superhero fashion designer Edna Mode. So you older cats who groove to Dr. No can hang with your comic book-worshipping kids and your Pixar-loving grandkids for family-friendly fun at the multiplex. Just expect a serviceable sequel rather than a new animated classic.

[Note: Incredibles 2 comes accompanied by the new Pixar short "bao," a rather baffling reverie about a mother and child, with the child depicted as a sentient dumpling.]

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