Every bigshot filmmaker in Hollywood could stand to buy a ticket to Incredibles 2 and take a few notes. In an industry clogged with blockbusters, where nearly every week brings a new massively budgeted extravaganza, it’s disheartening how many of them don’t know how to stage an action sequence. Enter Brad Bird, the maestro behind two of Pixar’s greatest successes (The Incredibles and Ratatouille) and the most death-defying of the Mission: Impossible movies (Ghost Protocol). His return to the medium of animation, where he got his start in the business, is dazzling, thought-provoking, and sometimes overwhelming in terms of plotting. But the set pieces always shine.
It helps that Bird is working with computer-drawn creations, of course, since they’re easier to command. But whether in animation or live-action, he’s long been a director who knows exactly where to place his camera in the midst of the mightiest chaos. As a work of zippy, kinetic filmmaking, Incredibles 2 is an improvement on the brilliant original, finding delightful new ways to have its family of superheroes fight crime and work together on a grander canvas than before. But as with his last movie, the much-maligned (if fascinating) Tomorrowland, there are moments where Bird gets in his own way with a convoluted narrative and unsteady allegories.
A lot of the ideas at work in Incredibles 2 will be dissected in the coming weeks, plumbed for the pointed politics Bird has been accused of writing into his films in the past. That complaint is more than fair—like or hate the messages about the role of elites in society that bubble up in his scripts, Bird is undoubtedly an artist who seeks to challenge viewers. But much of the narrative subtext in Incredibles 2 is harder to parse and doesn’t fully cohere. This isn’t the kind of Pixar sequel (say, the Cars follow-ups or Finding Dory) that feels phoned in—if anything, it’s trying to do too much.
The plot picks up mere moments after the last film’s conclusion, ignoring the public’s 14-year wait for a sequel. Bird has made the understandable decision to retain the wonderful dynamics of the Parr family unit by keeping everyone the same age. There’s Bob (Craig T. Nelson), the hulking, super-strong father; Helen (Holly Hunter), the ultra-stretchy mom; Violet (Sarah Vowell), the invisible teen daughter; Dash (Huck Milner), the super-fast youngster; and enigmatic baby Jack-Jack—all blessed with powers that have made them outcasts in the film’s ersatz-1960s universe, where superheroes are banned by law.
In the first movie, Bob rediscovered his love of crimefighting (like a Don Draper having a more wholesome mid-life crisis), while eventually realizing that home was where his heart was all along. In Incredibles 2, it’s Helen who becomes the careerist, as she’s recruited by the smooth-talking branding expert Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) to become the face of his campaign to restore superheroes’ legal status. So Helen puts on her Elastigirl suit again, and the audience gets a plethora of beautifully choreographed action scenes as she uses her gifts of elongation to fight a mysterious villain called Screenslaver.
Here’s where things start to get more difficult to unpack. Screenslaver’s modus operandi is to hypnotize people through their television sets—he’s a broad metaphor for everyone being too addicted to their various screens, one that just about survives transplantation to the ’60s. Like many a villain, he’s fond of monologuing, and his screeds against Helen cast her and her superhero ilk as a lazy safety net for the rest of society, draining the citizenry of their free will. He’s the bad guy, yes, but like the angry fanboy villain of the first Incredibles (who sought to redistribute powers among everybody), Screenslaver has a very particular philosophy and goals more complex than “world domination.”
There’s so much to puzzle over that it makes Incredibles 2 worth a second viewing. Bird has plenty to say about this world of heroes and villains, where the elite live in public as a separate sort of species, both lionized and feared. The diminutive costume designer Edna Mode (voiced by Bird, and as much of a highlight here as she was in the first film) refers to Helen and her family as “gods,” and she’s not wrong. But while Bird wants to engage with the notion of deities living among us, he draws real pathos when he reminds viewers of the Parr family’s inherent humanity, all their super-gifts aside.
While the sequel doesn’t have an emotional arc quite as poignant as the first Incredibles did, its B-plot (which sees Bob playing stay-at-home dad while Helen goes off to save the world) is nonetheless consistently charming. Violet continues to wrestle with boy drama at school, Dash is still a bundle of unrestrained, teeming energy, and Jack-Jack begins to manifest his own powers, which include bursting into flames and transporting to other dimensions. If The Incredibles was a metaphor for finding the right balance between work and family, Incredibles 2 is an outsized satire about how much of an unpredictable adventure child-rearing can be, day to day.
I’ve never thought of Bird as a political filmmaker, but rather as a director who makes art about the creatively constrained, a man obsessed with the wrenching, soaring process of achieving one’s potential (which is why Pixar’s Ratatouille is his ultimate masterpiece). Incredibles 2 is the first work he’s made where his characters actually seem free, and while it takes time to build up steam and set up its plot mechanics, once everyone is in costume and letting loose, it’s an exhilarating ride.