“When everyone’s super, no one will be.”
This line from Brad Bird’s The Incredibles perfectly encapsulates the writer/director’s computer-animated adventure. It’s his celebration of exceptionalism that provides the beating heart of his original. If only Bird’s long-awaited Incredibles 2 was as exceptional as its predecessor. Rather than conjuring a satisfying return, Bird replaced the boundless creativity of his 2004 masterwork with a predictable plot that barely coasts on autopilot, while offering little of the warmth or relatable family dynamic that audiences fell in love with the first time around.
The Incredibles managed to pave its own magical way, four years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe began to take shape with the first Iron Man film. But during the past decade, superheroes on cinema screens have become a dime a dozen, driven mainly by Disney and the ever-expanding MCU, which will soon span 20 films. And with this glut of comic book-inspired movies, it takes a lot to remain, well, super.
Incredibles 2 isn’t terrible, but viewed through the prism of the unparalleled pedigree of Pixar’s best, being good simply isn’t good enough—something the 60-year-old Bird probably knows better than almost anyone. A natural-born filmmaker, Bird is exceptional himself. During a tour of Walt Disney Studios at age 11, he determined he’d become an animator. By the time he was 14, the Montana native was being mentored by Milt Kahl, one of Disney’s legendary Nine Old Men. Upon graduating from high school, Bird was awarded a Disney scholarship to the California Institute of the Arts, where he forged relationships with artists whom he would later work with at Pixar.
After serving as a consultant for the first eight seasons of TV’s The Simpsons, Bird wrote and directed The Incredibles, which in turn led to 2007’s Ratatouille. Both films won Oscars for Best Animated Feature, while also earning Bird nominations for his screenplays. Since he had nearly 14 years to come up with a worthy follow-up to The Incredibles, expectations were high that he would once again soar to his earlier heights. Instead, we’re now witnessing his fall to Earth.
Picking up moments before the conclusion of the first film, Incredibles 2 finds the Parr family—Bob/Mr. Incredible (once again voiced by Craig T. Nelson), his wife Helen/Elastigirl (the returning Holly Hunter), sad-eyed teen daughter Violet (This American Life’s Sarah Vowell, also returning), speedy tween son Dash (Huckleberry Milner, replacing the now-25-year-old Spencer Fox) and adorable infant Jack-Jack—still being forced to keep their powers under wraps due to Watchmen-inspired anti-superhero legislation. But rather than Mr. Incredible, this time it’s Helen who slips on her Elastigirl tights in a bid to relegitimize crime fighting, while Bob becomes a stay-at-home dad who finally sees what Helen was up against while he spent years trying to conform to life as an insurance claim adjuster.
While Bob struggles to understand why Violet is making herself more invisible than ever, he also attempts to aid Dash with his equally puzzling New Math homework. Ironically, Jack-Jack begins to excel at multiplication—of himself, that is—and dividing into numerous copies is just one of his emerging powers that was briefly teased during the first film’s climactic showdown with the villainous Syndrome.
An uncanny prediction of today’s fan culture, Syndrome allowed his boyhood enthusiasm for Mr. Incredible to twist into something toxic. He’s a nerd who grew up loving something so much he vowed to destroy it when it didn’t live up to his impossible expectations. By comparison, Screenslaver—the Big Bad who ensnares Elastigirl in this sequel’s muddled plot machinations—is little more than a clever name in search of a character. There’s more to the movie than that, of course—far too much more. It’s as if Bird had a decade-and-a-half worth of ideas that he couldn’t bear to pare down, so he crammed them all into one film.
Jack-Jack’s blossoming abilities might propel crowd-pleasing set pieces that provide this movie’s best comic moments, but his mother proves a less compelling protagonist than her husband as she stretches herself, literally and figuratively. If Bird had simply narrowed his focus to the difficulties parents face while juggling family and career, he might have located the emotional center that remains key to Pixar’s best work. As returning super-suit designer, the pint-sized fashionista Edna Mode (voiced by Bird) observes, “Done properly, parenting is a heroic act.”
Family audiences can hardly argue with that. They deserve better. ◆
Starring Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huckleberry Milner, Eli Fucile, Catherine Keener, Bob Odenkirk, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Bird, Sophia Bush, Brad Bird and Phil Lamarr. Written and directed by Brad Bird. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway, Seaport, South Bay and in the suburbs.