Friday, 13 July 2018

The Incredibles 2

Rating: 4/5

Fourteen years and a surprising glut of underwhelming titles have passed since Pixar's The Incredibles, a genuine, honest-to-God action movie boasting all of the mighty animation house's visual genius and storytelling heft, first arrived on our screens.

Now, after what seems an inordinate delay given the critical and financial success of his original, director Brad Bird returns with this dazzlingly thrilling sequel. As we endure an era shorn of heroes who act simply because it's the right thing to do, and in which able women seem more and more like humanity's saviours, The Incredibles 2 is the shot in the arm most of us desperately require.

Picking up immediately after the final scene of the first movie, Bird reintroduces the Parr clan: Bob/Mr Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), and sons Dash (Huck Milner) and toddler Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile). Little has changed in their crucial interplay. They squabble, talk back to one another, escalate disputes and deal in industrial amounts of tension, spoken and unspoken. In short, they are a typical family unit: fiercely loyal and, save for their myriad super powers, relatable as hell.

Chucked out of their government-protected digs (superheroism has previously been made illegal and the Parrs live under the protection of an indebted Uncle Sam) following a bombastic attempt to foil a bank heist, unemployed Bob and Helen come within the orbit of telecoms magnate Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his inventor sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener). He wants to contract their particular set of skills to lead his PR effort to bring 'supers' back into the mainstream. However, turning the traditional set-up on its head, it is Helen, not the mountainous Bob, who is placed at the vanguard of this challenge, leaving the latter to tend house and look after the kids.

It's in these moments that The Incredibles 2 seems most relevant. There can be discerned palpable glee in Helen – whose face should appear next to the dictionary definitions of the words 'capable' and 'controlled'  as she falls back into a life thought lost to domesticity. Bob, by contrast, reluctantly fills his wife's role from film one, straining against the friction between his own ambitions and the desire to support her aspirations. In the era of #MeToo, such dynamics are unavoidable. 

In its execution, this narrative duopoly never disappoints. Helen's activities offer her a chance to shine, all derring-do and slick sleuthing. She soon becomes entangled in the schemes of cyber criminal the Screenslaver and her adventures constitute the bulk of the recognisable hero stuff. Proceedings are framed less by the big, bad Bond-villain settings of The Incredibles  though that picture's gorgeous retrofuturism is retained – than they are the urban crime-fighting aesthetic of Gotham City or Spiderman's New York. 

Back on the ranch, Bob must navigate a domestic minefield comprising algebra, teenage romance and a baby with a fusillade of hitherto unnoticed powers, all while battling feelings of emasculation. The two strands, Bob's and Helen's, operate in harmony, one never inspiring longing for the other; each are replete with excitement and endlessly entertaining.

Equally, from a technical standpoint, the movie is a masterful work. The animation hums, as is always the case when Pixar opens up its throttle, and a series of astounding set pieces roar across the screen. From a high-speed train chase involving Helen and her sleek electric motorcycle (go green, everyone) to a borderline savage, strobe-lit brawl, the director does not hold back, channelling the energy he captured so admirably in 2011's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. That a family-friendly romp should prove so exhilarating is significant indeed.

That said, The Incredibles 2 is, for all the spectacular trimmings, powered by its characters. The cast is invariably a joy, with Hunter's elite mum a particular standout, as at home chairing a family meeting as she is leaping out of aeroplanes. Bird brings his vocal talents to bear as the returning Edna Mode, the pint-sized, highly strung couturier responsible for the family's iconic costumes. Then, of course, there is the adorable Jack-Jack, a whir of constantly twitching, gurning, burbling energy, rendered the world's cutest WMD by abilities absolutely nobody can gauge.

The flaws are largely minor. Urbane sidekick Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) is shifted out of focus more than he should be. He accomplishes little of note, none of his gags coming close to The Incredibles's fantastic spin on Jackson's "I have to answer that phone" scene from Die Hard with a Vengeance.

The plot, too, is by turns funny and whip smart, yet it is curbed somewhat by dastardly machinations that ultimately feel flimsy at best. Strangely, the obligatory spectacular finale is the film's most generic sequence. 

Nevertheless, the family is given the chance to shine, no one Parr casting a shadow on the next. A subtle message to teenagers everywhere even underpins the dying moments: choose your friends but not at the expense of your family.