Friday 20 July 2018

Family dynamic: "Incredibles 2"

2004's The Incredibles was a tricky one. This viewer thrilled to the way it stretched and pushed the digimated form, but it was longer and busier than its Pixar predecessors, and cued a lot of discussion about both its philosophical position (which the previous year's Finding Nemo hadn't) and whether young viewers could engage with a film that addressed middle-aged spread and American exceptionalism head-on. As it happened, the film was a success without threatening to overhaul Pixar's biggest hits, and the studio's animators, then in their pomp, moved on to deliver Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up before the decade was out. In 2018, we find the studio in more or less the same kind of slump in which we found Bob Parr (a.k.a. Mr. Incredible) at the opening of that first movie, with allegations of workplace impropriety doing the rounds and the blazing inspiration of one-offs like Inside Out muffled by a slew of okay-to-mediocre retreads (Monsters University, Finding Dory, Cars 2 and 3). With the distress signals having been thrown up, writer-director Brad Bird has returned from live-action (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Tomorrowland) to an animated world that always did hold the possibility of further adventures within it. Miraculously, he has delivered one of this studio's strongest sequels; I'm tiptoeing towards heresy here, but you may even find yourself, as I did, being more purely dazzled by Incredibles 2 than you were at any point during the Toy Story follow-ups.

You will, granted, need to share Bird's taste for knotty, complicated scripting. As we rejoin this world, superheroes remain persona non grata in the eyes of the state, which draws the Parrs into partnership with the private sector; an early catch is that the billionaire tech developer courting them, Winston Deavor (voiced by Bob Odenkirk), deems Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) too heavy-handed for PR purposes, and selects his wife Helen (a.k.a. Elastigirl, voiced once again by Holly Hunter) to become the poster girl for his operation. Around them the franchise expands, but never bloats. Deavor throws open a door to reveal an entire study's worth of under-the-radar capes and costumes. One supervillain (burrowing ne'er-do-well The Underminer) gives way to another (Screenslaver) who questions society's reliance on superheroes to save them (as well anyone tired of Marvel and DC movies might), only to be superceded in turn by a third. Every conversational interaction serves as a debate on some position, worldview, ethos. The central role-reversal is, we can assume, Bird's take on shifting gender roles: where it was the patriarch who had to shape up and lead the pushback against evil in the first film, this time - as has become common in latter-day Disney releases - it's a woman who leads the charge. Bob, meanwhile, has to face up to the challenge of 24/7 childcare, which gets even more complicated when your toddling youngest shows signs of having more powers than the rest of the clan combined - making him something like the Swiss Army knife of superheroes.

Thus can Bird cut his chatter with some particularly inspired action: he sets up his theses (superpowers as double-edged sword/more than one way to raise a family/quality versus convenience), then throws them around at not inconsiderable speed to see whether they hold together. If in the first film, completed less than a decade after the great leap forwards of Toy Story, the animators were stretching and pushing, seeing just how elastic these newish-fangled pixels might be, the sequel keeps testing itself, which is exactly the kind of measure against complacency most sequels leave out in the rush to capitalise on a previous success. (It can't just be coincidence that the Parr's eldest son Dash spends much of the running time prepping for a maths exam: a lot of thought and homework is going on here.) Bird comes up with a a neat conceptual joke - that Elastigirl proves a good deal more flexible than her other half when it comes to multitasking - then surrounds it with deft, throwaway gags about water features and indestructible suits. His team, meanwhile, program runaway trains, or set two sets of powers against one another (much as the script does with rhetorical positions), but they've also taken time to imagine what this universe's equivalent of a Dr. Seuss book might sound like, and what the black-and-white movies going out on TV after dark in an already notably retro-leaning world might look like.

There is an obvious delight in being greeted by an animated sequel that doesn't go in for repetition, or go down the usual quest narrative path, yet the film's invention and dynamism is such you soon twig Incredibles 2 could head in pretty much any direction it wants and hit upon material guaranteed to restore the smile to one's face. Along his travels in the decade-and-a-half that has separated original from sequel, Bird has taken on the instincts for widescreen action and spatial sense of Die Hard's John McTiernan, the playful view of the sexes most commonly associated in film circles with Howard Hawks, the eye for urban architecture of an Edward Hopper, and the family values of today's more progressive sitcoms. In our live-action superhero soaps, the excess of powers accumulated by the X-Men or Avengers over successive sequels has more often than not led to the cancelling out of drama, and the repositioning (by million-dollar marketing) of that censor-derived phrase "mild peril" as a major event. Partly because of cartoon physics, partly because it's so obviously reaching for way more than just drama, you sit before Incredibles 2 increasingly convinced that anything is possible inside this universe: it's the most complete Pixar package for years. Speaking of which, get there early for Bao, writer-director Domee Shi's real three-course-meal of a supporting feature: cute, a little weird, and finally very sweet.

Incredibles 2 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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