Along with the Toy Story trilogy, The Incredibles is one of the jewels in the crown that made Pixar the ne plus ultra of animation companies. But whereas the saga of Woody, Jessie and Buzz Lightyear played out in three films spread across a decade and a half, it’s taken 14 years for Mr Incredible, Elastigirl and their kids to find their way back to the big screen.
Boosted by central characters that remain vastly engaging and a deep supply of wit, Incredibles 2 certainly proves worth the wait, even if it hits the target but not the bull’s-eye in quite the way the first one did.
It remains to be seen whether everyone who loved the original when they were six years old and is now 20 will rush out to catch this follow-up, but there’s plenty of crackling entertainment value here for viewers aged from five to 95.
Still front and centre are the key elements that made Brad Bird’s original creation so captivating: The tested but resilient bonds within the Middle American family with secret superhero lives, the fabulous late-50s/early 60s space-age-obsessed design scheme, the deep-dish reservoir of wit, a keenly expressed sense of what it takes to maintain a balanced marriage and great command of a narrative curveball.
On top of all this is the pronounced female slant: The story shines the spotlight on Elastigirl, with adolescent daughter Violet beginning to spread her wings. For good measure, infant tyke Jack-Jack hilariously begins displaying his potential with incipient displays of Incredible behaviour.
The tale picks up exactly where the first one left off, with a massive drill guided by the aptly named Underminer (John Ratzenberger) breaking up through the pavement to wreak havoc on Municiberg. There to thwart him are Mr Incredible (Craig T Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter).
But the civil authorities don’t appreciate the destruction caused by their intervention and ban superheroes for good. What this means for the Parrs - Bob and Helen, along with 14-year-old Violet (Sarah Vowell), 10-year-old Dash (Huckleberry Milner) and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) - is two weeks at the gorgeously retro Safari Court motel before they’re cast out and forced to decide what to do with the rest of their lives.
Bird’s authorial attitude is both sly and sincere, with a view of the nuclear family as the locus of human virtue and strength. It’s a perspective that is both tested and reaffirmed multiple times throughout the film, first and foremost with Mr Incredible resigning himself to taking a backseat in order to tend to child-rearing while his wife ventures out to right the world’s latest wrongs.
Society’s chief nemesis is an elusive presence cleverly called Screenslaver, which hypnotises and thus establishes control over anyone who happens to glance at its image when it appears on a screen. This insidious mind-control entity is an advanced, high-tech version of Orwell’s telescreens that works instantaneously.
Given the official opposition to superheroes, it falls to entrepreneurs to make use of their talents and it’s Helen who gets the call from telecommunications tycoon Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk).
Grumpy and disgruntled, the professionally sidelined Bob must assume familial duties that involve various challenges: Violet is going through teen angst and a boy problem; Dash can’t wait to join in the adventuring; and superbaby Jack-Jack hilariously begins exhibiting superhero attributes at unexpected moments.
As in the prior Incredibles, periods of enforced non-superheroing get Bob down; he’s daunted by helping his son with new maths and he lazily grows stubble just being stuck in the house every day, but he ultimately makes a breakthrough, realizing he’s got to up his game for the sake of his children. It’s the sort of mid-life male attitude transition that’s rare in contemporary films.
In the meantime, Elastigirl gets to flex her limbs as never before and it’s a kick to see her exult in them; she’s a woman newly unbound.
Taking on human opponents would be far too easy for her, given her dexterous, shape-shifting skills that enable her arms and legs to instantly stretch to unimaginable lengths. Therefore, most of her energies are expended contending with large and powerful modes of transportation.
As visually spectacular and speedy as these rescue scenes may be, they’re also a bit much, becoming somewhat rote, even repetitive - (wo)man versus machine, high-speed thrills that continually have to keep topping each other while the heroine discovers the seemingly unlimited extent of her powers.
Still, this sex reversal, where physical achievement and societal role acceptance are concerned, is the central dramatic conceit and sociological preoccupation of Incredibles 2, which will make it as popular with women of all ages as it will be for children.
Naturally, the other members of the family ultimately get to join in the fun, too, but Elastigirl is decidedly first among equals this time around.
Two fondly remembered characters from the original, Edna Mode and Frozone, are back, but rather briefly. Returning veterans Nelson, Hunter, Vowell and Samuel L Jackson (Frozone) slip back into their roles as if not a day has passed. Director Bird once again deliciously essays Edna.