Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Incredibles 2

Parr for the Course
Sequeling is a Heroic Act...Done Properly.

There's an extraordinary little film that precedes The Incredibles 2—and the standard experimental Pixar short.It's not animated, it's live action, with director Brad Bird, Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, and Sam Jackson talking about how hard it is to make a movie—especially an animated movie. It has been fourteen years since Bird made the first The Incredibles**—directing Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Tomorrowland and working on his still-planned historical film 1906 in the interim—and the film acknowledges that it's been a long time since the first one and thanking the audience for their patience in waiting for the second one. It's an off-putting moment, a completely unnecessarily defensive "Mea Culpa" for not doing something so obvious as to make a sequel to an acknowledged crowd-pleaser. I never thought it would come to the day when a major studio would apologize for NOT cashing in. Strange world.
But, not so strange as the one the Parr family continues to live in. Set in a period stuck in the molded polypropylene styled decor of the space-aged 1960's, super-heroes are banned from practicing their selfless heroism, despite the on-going threat of criminal masterminds who do bad things because they're just bad people. In the case of the opening segment, it's "The Underminer" (John Ratzenberger, fulfilling his role as a Pixar good luck charm) who has a huge old infrastructure-destroying boring machine to dig underground and suck the money out of bank-vaults. The Incredible Parr's, with the parentally-disapproved help of kids Dash and Violet (who are supposed to be minding baby Jack-Jack) instinctually go in to help, creating millions of dollars of property-damage, while the bad-guy still manages to get away.
This does not sit well with the local police. The money is insured, after all, but the city infrastructure is still rubble, and—as they are told in an interrogation room—it probably would have been better if they hadn't...helped...at all. Super-heroes there are like the ones in the DC Universe—super-heroes do more harm than good and rather than heroes they are more of a menace to Society. The government must keep them locked down. The situation in the original film is just reinforced in the opening action sequence.
The Parr's are treated like the very criminals they try to stop. Their government supervisor, Rick Dicker (voiced now by Jonathan Banks as the original voice-actor, Pixar alum Bud Luckey,—to whom the film is dedicated—passed away before his part could be recorded) finds that logic so counter-intuitive that he decides to quit his job—but not before he performs a mind wipe on teenager Tony Rydinger (Michael Bird) who recognized Violet in costumer during the opening sequence (which creates some problems later in the movie). The Parr's spend a night, relocated in a hotel , pondering their fate.
But, that pondering is interrupted by super-friend Frozone (Jackson) who hands them a business card from an entrepreneur named Weston Deaver (Bob Odenkirk), who has invited them to a business meeting, with one caveat: wear their old superhero spandex—he's a bit of a fan.
The meeting comes with an offer—Deaver and his sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener) want to begin a sample rehabilitation publicity program—re-integrating the super's back into accepted society, building trust by their positive deeds. And given that Elastigirl, statistically, has less property damage associated to her past actions, she is chosen as the point-person for the job, with the ultimate goal of of repealing the super-heroes ban. The Deavers provide monitoring, mentoring, new-tech (in the form of a fast-changing motorbike) and a new costume ("It's so dark and angsty" Helen complains).
Bob, although hurt that it's not him who's spear-heading the project, still wants to do his part by being a stay-at-home Dad for the kids, which, if it doesn't mean saving lives and getting the glory for stopping runaway trains, still has its pit-falls—dealing with Dash's new math homework and Violet's social anxiety at school, and training Jack-Jack, who has developed super-powers, not just one, but seventeen of them, that pop up depending on his mood (how like an infant).
While Bob is trying to keep the home-fires from spontaneously combusting, Elastigirl starts to see a pattern in her super-hero deeds; soon, she begins to suspect there's another super-villain behind the unnatural catastrophe's that befall the city, the Screenslaver (voiced by Bill Wise), who manipulates events and the actions of others by hypnotising them through the omnipresent screens in everyday life to do his will. Director Bird always tries to insert some sociiological issues into his work and the whole Screenslaver plot is a clever little subliminal message running through Incredibles 2 about a disengaged populace submerged in their screens—a warning about today's "plugged-in" world (ironically projected in a theater on just such a screen!)
Some of the most pointed lines of dialogue are embedded in this section. At one point Winston says "Politicians don't understand people who do good just because it's right...makes them nervous." Evelyn opines that "People will trade quality for ease every single time." And the Screenslaver's little televised rants that "Superheroes are part of your brainless desire to be passive...super-heroes keep us weak." Not everyone appears to be part of the Deaver's program.***
"It's so dark and angsty!"
So, while the Helen story provides the message and momentum of the story, husband Bob provides the laughs and the heart as he struggles to maintain his family (and composure) as he increasingly loses sleep over the complexities of fatherhood.
That's where the laughs are, particularly when they involve the unpredictable Jack-Jack, who continually expresses innocent delight at what he can do (no matter how potentially destructive it might be)—the highlight being a fight between him and a stray raccoon, a sequence that couldn't be more precisely timed or hilarious, evoking the split-second laughs of the Looney Tunes cartoons or the recent "Scrat" shorts from the Ice Age team.
At the same time, Incredibles 2 wraps itself up in the same space-age suburbia milieu that was so fascinating to see in the original. Composer Michael Giacchino's score moves beyond the first movie's "Mickey-Mousing-Mancini-Music" and more to a sophisticated John Barry sound that accentuates atmosphere over precisely hitting it's marks. 
It's been fourteen years since the original and so the animation endeavors to be a bit more sophisticated with the faces, which creates an odd disconnect with the memory of the smoother lines of the characters previously and occasionally there's a slip between dialogue and lip movement.
There's also a slight results down-shift that the sequel doesn't quite have the freshness of the original—one is at a loss to how it could be. But, when you look at what Incredibles 2 presents, you have to give it extra marks over other "dark and angsty" films in the superhero genre for providing more brains and heart than the brawn that most of them rely on.

* This time Bao, the first directed by a woman, Domee Shi, who makes a film that does more than just push the animated form, but goes into some psychological emotional issues with some shocking—but funny—results.

** I'm glad there are fans. Really, I am. They spend money and thus support films. But so many fans are so clotted and arthritic in their thinking that there were actual protests that there's no "The" in the title of the sequel. I could go further with this, giving a good reason why there isn't one, but the better pursuit would be examining the frames of the film to see the details that Bird—and regularly, Pixar, put into the frame that are so smart and so well-considered.

*** One suspects that Bird is too smart for his own good: he never completely buys into the superficial "everything will get better" platitudes of movie entertainment—his Tomorrowland was practically scuttled by his own cynicism about a better future through technology.

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