The Incredibles 2 Can’t Live Up to 14 Years of Expectations

Hello, everyone! I’m currently failing to keep up with my goal of writing a weekly blog post, but after about two weeks of deep meditation, introspection, and communication with the shamans, I think I’m ready to review  Incredibles 2. I love the original Incredibles and I harbored extremely high hopes for its decades-in-the-making sequel. As can be expected, the movie did not satisfy those expectations, nor should I have hoped it would. When you have a film as witty, poignant, beautiful, and gratifying as The Incredibles, any film that does less is going to feel like a let-down. That’s not to say that Incredibles 2 is not a good film, and perhaps, if it existed in a vacuum, it might be considered an excellent animated movie. Unfortunately, it was created as a sequel to one of the best Pixar films of all time, and even one of the best animated films of all time. It was doomed by its heritage and by our expectations.

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Synopsis: After the defeat of Syndrome in the first film, the Parr family unites to take down The Undertaker before he can destroy Metroville. Their efforts result in so much collateral damage to the city that the government finalizes it ban on “supers,” and the Parrs must once again go into hiding. Luckily, Elastigirl is contacted by Evelyn and Winston Deavor, two sibling billionaires who want to make “supers” back into America’s heroes. While Elastigirl works for the Deavors, Mr. Incredible stays at home with the kids, dealing with Violet’s hormones, Dash’s homework, and Jack-Jack’s new powers. But while Elastigirl is happy to take center stage for the Deavors, she is haunted by a new villain, The Screenslaver, who threatens everything she holds dear.

My take: Incredibles 2 is a technical masterpiece. Pixar is in a class all its own when it comes to 3-D animation, and an action-packed movie like Incredibles is the perfect showcase for the studio’s stunning ability to capture the most intimate and unconscious movements of the human body. Returning to the style of the original, the sequel takes us deeper into the quirky, retro Metroville. The design of the movie is colorful, yet sleek, and the locales, from a dinky Miami-esque motel to the Deavor’s futuristic 60s mansion, are luscious enough to keep your eyes perpetually satisfied.

The sequel is far more violent than the original, which I found to be an improvement. One scene, in which Elastigirl searches for Screenslaver in a tiny, dark apartment, was incredibly tense and had me wishing for a Pixar  horror movie. I really enjoyed how the quality of animation was breathtaking across the board. Whether it was as exhilarating as Elastigirl racing after a speeding train on her motorcycle, or as mundane as Violet crossing her legs, the animation was impeccably realistic. Pixar has reached a level where its observation of human behavior is so acute that if they chose to they could easily straddle the boundaries between animation and photo-realism.

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Even though the second Incredibles shows technical mastery, it doesn’t come close to approaching the narrative clarity of the first.  I’d like to discuss the plot of the second film without comparing it to the first one, but that becomes impossible when it’s basically a shallow rehash of the original film. In my review of the The Last Jedi, I said that The Force Awakens was smart to capitalize on the nostalgia of A New Hope by writing an updated version of that story with new characters. Incredibles 2 does attempts to capitalize on the 14 years of built up nostalgia, and wins points for that, but is restrained by having to work with same characters. They don’t “update” the old story, they copy it beat for beat, with only slight variations.

On the Wikipedia page for the film, they elaborate on writer/director Brad Bird’s creative process, stating that “Bird did not want to use a narrative element like a timeskip or to come up with new characters, and instead continued from where the first film left off. This allowed him to keep characters with the same superpowers and not have to develop new ones, nor did he need to figure out how to deal with Violet and Dash being adults.”

I consider this decision to be the crux of the movie’s narrative failures. Instead of diving into new material and new potential, Bird and the Pixar crew dug their heels into the familiar, literally planting themselves seconds after the first movie ends, and just after the resolution of the Parr family’s many character arcs. In the first film, Bob learns to appreciate his family and not value his role as a hero above his role as a father, Helen learns that her children are capable of deciding whether or not use their powers and to be less hands-on as a parent, Dash learns to be proud, yet modest about his powers, and Violet learns how to step out of her shell and asks out Tony Rydinger. Creating substantial character arcs is far more difficult in this instance since so little time has passed between the last resolutions, but it’s not impossible. TV series do it all the time, though their arcs episode-to-episode are usually less consequential.

The problem with the second Incredibles is that Bird takes the episodic TV approach to writing new character arcs, and he creates a vastly insignificant story compared to the first movie. I’m not talking about the “stakes,” because those are as high as ever. Once again, all of Metroville, especially the Parr family, is at risk of destruction from a villain mastermind.  Incredibles movies, however, aren’t about the traditional “stakes” that you find in Marvel or DC movies. Bird never wanted the movies to be about superheroes, he wanted them to about a family. The first Incredibles succeeded, always prioritizing the dynamics of the Parr family over the superhero antics. That movie was about a marriage straining at the edges, children realizing the danger of the real world, and a man having to face up to his past decisions. Even though these arcs were less flashy than the fight between Bob and Syndrome, they were clearly the heart of the film. No one remembers  the first Incredibles for its fight scenes. They remember it for the characters. I can’t say the same after seeing Incredibles 2.

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Hindered by its timeline, Incredibles 2 flounders to come up with new stories for its characters, but ends up doubling down on the arcs from the first movie. Without spoiling too much, I’ll say this: Helen trades places with Bob for the “should I care more about being a superhero or a parent arc?” and Bob takes Helen’s arc as a disgruntled parent who wishes they were a superhero. Dash doesn’t even get an arc; his only role is to be comic relief and confuse Bob with homework. I was saddened by this because I loved Dash from the first movie and I felt his character was hurt the most by Bird’s refusal to do a time jump. Since he was still a ten-year-old, his original voice actor could no longer play him, so they replaced him with a kid who didn’t have the same panache as the old Dash. Violet gets the exact same arc as the first movie: overcoming her awkwardness and trying to get a date with Tony Rydinger. Jack-Jack is the only character to get some new material to work with, but he’s a baby and has no emotional development, so it doesn’t even matter.

Perhaps these retreaded arcs could have worked if the characters had the same perfect familial chemistry as the old film, or if they were facing a new and interesting villain. None of these elements are present. I don’t know if its because Bird was rusty after a 14 year break from writing these characters, but their dialogue and dynamics seemed off. Their jokes felt forced and so did their squabbles. It was  like watching an animated family that knew they were being watched. After waiting so long to make a sequel, Bird became so aware of the expectations of his audience that he baked them into his script.

As for the villain, The Screenslaver is a copy of Syndrome with a few changes to their origin story. They both rely on modern technology to control the masses, and they both have an ulterior motive for working with “supers.” There’s even a second act twist that almost directly echoes the first movie, but in a super predictable way.

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This gif sums up Bird’s approach to the script, except exchange “math” for “character arcs”

Final Consensus: The first Incredibles is an animated classic. Few sequels reach the same level as their predecessors, and even fewer surpass them. With the new era of Pixar focused more on technical prowess than narrative fulfillment, it was silly of us to have expected an Incredibles 2 with the same quality as Toy Story 2. That sequel was a fluke, while Incredibles 2 is the quality that we should be expecting. Visually stunning, but narratively lacking. Unsurprisingly, critics loved this sequel. For a standalone film, it’s fun and entertaining, but for a follow-up to one of the best animated films of all time, it’s a disappointment. As our screens become inundated with bigger and better animated films, hopefully audiences will be able to tell the difference between a visual spectacle like Incredibles 2, and  film that has something worth saying, like the original.

 

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