Brad Bird’s Incredibles 2 is, much like its predecessor, delightful as an animated feature but really, really delightful as a superhero picture. It’s proof that someone (not anyone, mainly Bird) can make a Marvel-type movie that’s fleet and shapely, with action sequences rich in style rather than tumult. He’s a crackerjack filmmaker first and a marvelous animator a close second, and he has made the jazziest hybrid in years.
Credit much of that jazz to the composer, Michael Giacchino, and his orchestrator and conductor, Gordon Goodwin. Incredibles 2 begins with screaming horns and cool woodwinds — a lounge-y, 007 pastiche that revels in its influences. This is music that surges, barrels, saunters, and sneaks around on tippy-toes, vivacious but with a touch of sadness for a lost era, for the 1950s and ’60s, when spies and superheroes didn’t have to apologize for what they did. Compare that to the Parrs, Bob and Helen (a.k.a. Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl) and their kids Violet, Dash, and baby Jack-Jack, who are forced to live in a cheap motel, their powers and potential for do-gooding under wraps, their superheroism illegal because of its messy social consequences. Bob might even have to get a menial job to keep the family where it is.
Born in 1955, Bird thinks in tropes that had probably their fullest expression in the Hanna-Barbera cartoon, The Jetsons — the Eisenhower-era nuclear family plus neat retro-futurist devices. So Helen, it’s assumed, will stay with the kids while Bob wins the bread. Elastigirl — having been in Mr. Incredible’s shadow — needs liberating. Her opportunity comes in the form of the rich-boy capitalist-showman Winston Deavor and his ironic sister, Evelyn. Their big idea is to build cameras into superheroes’ suits so that viewers can experience their feats firsthand and first person, and pressure chicken legislators to legalize superheroism. Bob and Helen both can’t participate, what with kids to supervise, and, to Mr. Incredible’s dismay, it’s Elastigirl who bounds to the front lines — though she’s not happy about her new costume, which forsakes bright red for something “dark and angsty.”
And so we get that quintessential sitcom setup: the dad who has never had to do domestic chores or get the kids to school on time or look after an infant. He has to deal with teenage Violet’s rage when the family’s fixer, Rick Dicker, wipes the short-term memory of her high-school crush, Tony, who caught sight of her taking off her superhero mask. He has to help Dash with that frustrating New Math.
If you grimace at Bird’s baseline, you might blanch at his politics, which are all over his movies. He’s a cartoon Objectivist, literally. His is a world in which superior beings are shunned — driven underground — for the supposed good of a collective represented by politicians both shortsighted and tyrannical. The villain — who turns people, regular and superheroic, into goggle-eyed zombies — is called the Screenslaver and contends that humans have become ever passive, sheltered, addicted to devices at the expense of live contact, as well as slaves to greedy corporations. “People will trade quality for ease,” says the villain. It’s not unlike the world envisioned by another Pixar movie, Wall-E, only this time it’s suspect. As Bird’s creepy but undersung live-action sci-fi film Tomorrowland made explicit, the enemy isn’t technology or nukes or global warming. It’s pessimism. It’s the kind of angst represented by Elastigirl’s new costume.
So, there’s that … But it’s testament to Bird’s gifts that even someone who thinks the Screenslaver isn’t entirely full of it is too dazzled by what’s on this screen to remain unseduced. As in the first Incredibles, the characters’ designs and voices capture both their personalities and their powers. There’s Bob/Mr. Incredible with his small, bowed legs and huge back, not the brightest bulb but fundamentally sweet and judicious in the use of his powers — and voiced in forthright tones by Craig T. Nelson. Helen/Elastigirl is the ultimate testament to flexibility, to the idea that any situation can be mastered if you’ve got enough stretch. She’s no sylvan thing, either: She has a big derriere to match her musclebound husband’s barrel chest, and Holly Hunter gives her voice her distinctive peppery southern push. Like all Bird’s heroes, she’s free of archness, which makes her a marvelous foil for the Evelyn of Catherine Keener, who’s all smoky cynicism. Keener’s is a voice that can stand back, a voice that has secrets.
How wonderful to hear Sarah Vowell and her euphonious quack as the irritable Violet, the quintessential brilliant but ever-stricken and angry teenage girl. (“Boys are jerks and superheroes suck. I renounce them.”) As Dash, Huck Milner does justice to his first name — he could be Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer or any drivingly inquisitive kid hero. Familiar voices like Bob Odenkirk (Winston Deavor), Samuel L. Jackson (Lucius/Frozone), and Jonathan Banks (Rick Dicker) sound a little more heightened than usual — they are themselves squared. And Bird himself is back as that little Edith Head–inspired stylist, Edna Mode, although the surprise is gone and her scenes are not the howl they were once. Might I say how well these characters have aged. To look at them, you’d hardly know 14 years have passed!
I won’t spoil any of the setpieces but will note the existence of one showstopper: a slapstick sequence in which baby Jack-Jack is provoked by a raccoon (they are provocative creatures) into exercising his powers for the first time. As with everything else, Bird’s timing makes even what’s expected galvanically funny and what’s unexpected volcanically so. Can we dare to hope that the studio people behind the current plague of superhero movies will watch Incredibles 2 and feel a twitch of shame? Their films are largely set inside computers anyway, so why not take their cues from Bird and streamline the storytelling, distill the action to its lyrical essence, and give us one great climactic sequence instead of the usual shambolic five? May they learn from the Bird to fly high!
An earlier version of this review referred to Incredibles 2 as The Incredibles 2.