Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Incredibles 2 (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Shortly after their battle with the villainous Syndrome, the superpowered Parr family comprised of father Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), mother Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and their children Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner) and Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) are in trouble with the law once again. However, brother-sister tech magnates Winston (Bob Odenkirk) and Evelyn (Catherine Keener) want to change that and make superhero work legal once again. As they work with Elastigirl, Mr. Incredible and Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) to change public perceptions of superheroes, a new villain waits in the wings to make an example of our heroes and make sure that they never take the spotlight again.

Given the fourteen-year gap these actors have to work around, especially for a film whose story picks up immediately after the first, our returning voices do amazingly well. Nelson is still being all things disgruntled and paternal, with a few self-aware toxic moments regarding his reaction to Helen’s role in the narrative, and he pulls through as the super-dad. And speaking of Helen, wow, does Holly Hunter deliver with this one. Serving as the maternal side of the family coin as before is still a great fit for that earthy Southern vocal delivery, and her prominence within the story gets a major upgrade, allowing her to serve as a vehicle for some rather cool showings of feminine strength, a theme that keeps bubbling under the surface of the entire film. Vowell mixes some teenaged angst into her character’s already-established social awkwardness, and her and Milner as a duo make for some very pleasant(ly dysfunctional) moments, particularly during the film’s bombastic finale. Jackson is still all things cool (I’ll punch myself for that one later) as Frozone and writer/director Brad Bird is still all things funny and psychotically professional as Edna Mode.

And now, the new voices. Jonathan Banks, taking over for the late Bud Luckey as the government spook Rick Dicker, makes for a nicely subtle tribute and send-off to his predecessor, both narratively and thematically making for a solid punch to the feels. Odenkirk and Keener do very well as far as depictions of people’s reactions to superheroes, with Winston’s being more geeky and driven by quote memorisation (the scene with him reciting the superheros’ theme songs is adorkable in the best way possible) and Evelyn being more reserved and somewhat cautious (her scenes next to Helen are where the film’s feminist underpinnings really bear fruit). Isabella “let me show you how snails fuck” Rossellini as an ambassador makes for a nice pseudo-cameo, Sophia Bush, Phil LaMarr and Paul Eiding as a group of new supers fit into the story exceedingly well, and Bill Wise as Screenslaver… okay, ignoring the pun in that name, he gives the big bad for the film a lot of gravitas that allows for the remarkable nuance of the character to shine through.

Between the success of Coco from last year and the internet collectively losing their minds over the animation quality in just the trailer for this film, this has a lot riding on it as far as visual expectations, even for a Pixar film. Well, not only do they manage to maintain the retro-futuristic aesthetic of the original, they boost it with yet another high mark for their animation pedigree. Like… I am quite stunned at how good it looks. It feels like Pixar has hit a major turning point as far as how they treat CGI; even with the obvious use of computers to create it, it is astoundingly natural. The lighting splendour from Coco is back in full force, resulting in some very moody sequences, and the texture work on pretty much everything from fabric to hair to water is damn-near perfect. At last, after spending so long seeing animators fail to make water look like water, it's quite refreshing to see Pixar set an example to follow.
But beyond just the textures and lighting and the dynamic ‘camera’ work, it’s the blocking that genuinely fascinates me the most about this. I mentioned Helen and Evelyn’s shared scenes before, but the weird thing is that a lot of their stronger moments? Completely without dialogue. Instead, through gesture and facial expressions (the kind of thing that flesh-and-blood actors need to emote for the camera), we are shown a quite strong bond between them. It’s enough to make the rather cartoonishly exaggerated facial features seem palatable against the incredibly realistic graphics around them.

But that’s all near-literal surface detail; the guts of what made The Incredibles as good as it is are threefold beyond the visuals. Firstly, superhero mythos and action spectacle; secondly, family dramedy; and thirdly, combining the first two to show the bare bones foundation of any good superhero team. All of that is in plentiful supply here. The animation quality, along with Michael Giacchino’s spy-jazz compositions, make the action scenes burst out of the screen, resulting in a lot of very cool and very crisp throwdowns. Not only do we get some solid combinations of powers between the titular family, the super-powered enemies they’re put up against feel like they were designed specifically to counter-act their established powers. To avoid spoilers, I won’t say much more on that, but it shows that Brad Bird put a lot of work into the innards of this production.
With the family drama on top of that, we get some damn funny moments of the family just bickering with each other, all while Jack-Jack’s kaleidoscopic powers set everyone’s teeth on edge… and possibly on fire. It maintains the feeling of a close-knit family unit, albeit a supercharged family unit, and the everyday gripes, annoyances and gags land on solid ground every single time.

And then there’s the synergy of the two, and this is where the film’s bigger intentions make themselves known. Have to admit, knowing that the main characters are both superheroes and parents, it makes sense that their villain for this story would be the one thing that parents seem to hate most: Screens. It’s an easy joke, granted, but when put into the hands of Brad Bird, it becomes fleshed-out and, honestly, something that can hold its own alongside the first as far as compelling villains go. Now, as good as the first film is, I won’t deny that Syndrome’s ultimate plan of trying to proliferate superhero status amongst the populace makes the Incredibles seem a bit… petty, in hindsight, and more than a little Randian in their insistence that they are the special ones and it should stay that way. Of course, that reading tends to forget the murderous false-flag operation Syndrome was running to accomplish that goal, but in all fairness, I get that interpretation.

I bring that up because this film, and its villain, feel like a bladed response to that interpretation. Of the idea that the Incredibles are selfish for wanting the freedom to use their powers, while seemingly looking down on what can charitably be called a ‘populist supervillain’. Insert your own obvious joke here, which given this film’s repeated mentioning of how out-of-touch politicians are with the public shows that Bird must be at least partially aware of the possibility for said joke. Anyway, while the Screenslaver may not have that same sense of (arguable) moral ambiguity, there is still a very real sense of nuance to the character. The motivation here is, basically, examining why we look up to superheroes in the first place: Because they can do the things that we can’t… or possibly won’t. They, much like screens, are simply meant to placate the masses and stop them from actually doing anything themselves, preferring to stick to the age-old Homer quote “Can’t somebody else do it?”

Now, is this interpretation of superheroes wrong? Well, that’s the wrong question; a better one would be “does this interpretation work?” and for this story, it definitely does. Partly because the Screenslaver’s methods result in some pretty tense moments, leading up to a glorious head of steam by the finale, but mainly because it ends up reinforcing the film’s take on feminism. It builds on that same attitude of thinking that someone else (men, in this instance) is expected to handle a given situation because… that’s just how things are. We expect superheroes to always be there to save the day, we expect screens to keep us occupied for whatever precious minutes we have to ourselves, and because of long-running and systemic sexism, we expect men to be at the top of the food chain. Of course, that’s all about perception, the very thing Winston wants to change regarding superheroes.
This is why Elastigirl’s prominence here works as well as it does: Because it takes Brad Bird’s penchant for treating his audience with respect and uses that to give one of the few popular female superheroes in cinema right now a platform to show the world who really runs it. In the original film, Elastigirl’s reaction to leaving the saving of the world to men was “I don’t think so”; here, we see precisely why that is.

All in all, considering the original is one of my all-time favourite films, this does an impressive job following that up. The acting is all stellar, the animation shows that Pixar’s upward trajectory is only gaining momentum with each new release, the actions scenes are solid, the soundtrack is great, and the writing both maintains what made the original so fun and interesting while expanding on certain concepts to make for some seriously intriguing themes. This is the kind of film that makes me glad I over-analyse films as much as I do, as this film gave me a lot to work with; I was actively anxious to get home from the cinema just to write this, a feeling I haven’t experienced in quite a while. I would hesitate to say that this is as good as the original (at least, not yet), but with everything it does right, it is an absolutely worthy successor, keeping up with Pixar’s incredible (heh) treatment of sequels.

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