Sunday, June 17, 2018

You'll believe a woman can stretch


Often, it's not so great when a sequel does the exact same thing as the original, only bigger.  Fortunately, Pixar sequels remember to do it better, too.

Written and directed by Brad Bird
With Holly Hunter (Helen "Elastigirl" Parr), Craig T. Nelson (Bob "Mr. Incredible" Parr), Sarah Vowell (Violet Parr), Huck Milner (Dashiell "Dash" Parr), Samuel L. Jackson (Lucius "Frozone" Best), Brad Bird (Edna Mode), John Ratzenberger (The Underminer), Bob Odenkirk (Winston Deavor), and Catherine Keener (Evelyn Deavor)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Pixar has an impressive track record with sequels, it's fair to say: discounting the Cars money-generator, every single time Pixar has franchised one of its movies, it's been better than its predecessor.  This is so clear in the case of the latter of the three Toy Stories that it's essentially a piece of settled wisdom, and while it's really unlikely that this will continue to hold true for Toy Story 4, it is still true right now, so it still counts.  More controversially, I happen to think the studio's other two goes at double-dipping on their greatest successes demonstrate the point almost as forcefully: Monsters University riskily prequelized Monsters, Inc., and turned out to have vastly more to say (and show) than its merely-cute forebear did; Finding Dory was an even-more-successful, slantwise version of the already pretty-darn-good Finding Nemo.

Given all this, it seems like I ought to have been more excited about Pixar's attempt to revive their other foundational hit from the turn of the millennium.  (It really has been that long, by the way: other than the Toy Stories and Carses, Pixar's follow-ups have taken on average a full thirteen years to see realization, making their corporate-mandated reason for existence almost too obvious.)  Interestingly, this one's production even followed the same basic historical pattern of Andrew Stanton's Finding Dory: a big-ticket animation director convinced Disney to give him tons and tons and tons of money for a live-action passion project, which then flopped, sending the big-ticket animation director straight back to where he came from, neither passing "go" nor collecting 200 million dollars in the process, and presently finding himself compelled to do a sequel for the animated movie he'd directed that had made the most cash.  It sounds unromantic, and is; on the plus side, I don't think I'll need to mention again just how hard Brad Bird dropped the ball on Tomorrowland.  Either way, it worked out well enough for Stanton that I shouldn't have had any bad feelings about Bird's own retreat back into cartoons.

Yet I was not excited about Incredibles 2.  Not from its announcement several years ago, and certainly not from its trailers, which promised a less-than-imaginative way forward for a universe I wasn't convinced would benefit too much from being expanded upon in the first place, set to be delivered in the form of flipping the plot of The Incredibles with Elastigirl replacing Mr. Incredible in the working-superhero protagonist's role.  The biggest difference would be that, now, instead of the surprisingly-adult, inherently-interesting suspected-adultery subplot that the stay-at-home parent got in the first one, the runtime would be rounded out this time with a great deal of sitcom-level gender-roles gags from circa 1985, all about Mr. Incredible trying and mostly-failing to take care of his kids, especially the unmanageable handful represented by the Incredible family's superpowered baby (and its most potentially-wearying visual), Jack-Jack.

The funny thing is, I'm extremely excited about Incredibles 2 now, and I wasn't even wrong.

Clearly, the basic shape of this sequel's plot didn't cost its writer-director much effort: in the aftermath of the superheroes' return to the public arena following the defeat of Syndrome—for the sequel begins the very moment The Incredibles ended, kicking things off with the battle against the Underminer, who has leveled up mightily from the final-frame gag he started off as back in 2004—the Parr family has been rendered 1)homeless and 2)indigent, what with their archenemy blowing up their house, and then their baby killing him without regard for the fact he was also Bob "Mr. Incredible" Parr's employer.

It's a minor thing, but maybe slightly telling about the narrative ambition this time around: this sequel to a "children's film" dials down the body count all the way, from the "at least a baker's dozen" of The Incredibles—many of them, oddly, killed by actual children!—to "none, even when it would be cool."

Despite these misfortunes, it's hardly any time at all before a solution to the Parrs' woes comes along, in the form of billionaire philanthropist Winston Deavon and his co-heir inventor sister Evelyn.  Inspired by the Parrs' (and good friend Frozone's) reemergence, their goal is to get the Superhero Registration Act, or whatever it was, rescinded.  To this end, they choose Helen "Elastigirl" Parr as the friendliest possible face of superheroics, equip her with a lot of new tech, and throw her  back into action, under the assumption that if Elastigirl can prove that superheroes can do good and stop disasters without causing too much damage of their own, then they can usher in a grand new era of costumed crimefighting, and "Make the Supers legal again!"

Yeah.  There is an awful lot in this movie that's evocative of this or that—body cameras, astroturf activism, spoiled billionaires, weird nostalgia, the challenges faced by well-meaning patriarchs in a changing world, and, of course, the villain that emerges to bedevil Elastigirl, the self-styled "Screenslaver," whose name suggests his main operating mode, and who feels exactly like Bird getting right back on his soapbox again, even after nobody wanted to hear him the first time (okay, I guess I did have cause to mention Tomorrowland twice), about how we're all addicted to mediated reality and therefore suck.  It is, of course, heinously disingenuous of any filmmaker, and especially a maker of escapist fantasies like Bird, to tell you to go out and get some fresh air—I have seen Bird, and am confident I can do more push-ups than he can, or whatever it is he wants us to do instead of watching his movie—but it is 100% more palatable, and maybe even self-satiric, when it comes out of the mouth of his villain, particularly when it's not even the villain's real motive anyway.  So there's that.

But even on the level of a sequel to The Incredibles, which was "about" participation-trophy culture and not letting catastrophic negative externalities drag you down, the sequel loses its head completely up its universe's ass, bearing down hard on what its predecessor was literally, textually about—pretty much fucking tort reform for superheroes, which is very obviously not a concern we can share, at least beyond the question "does it affect these characters I presumably like?", and doesn't even reach the level of "strained allegory for bigotry" or "strained allegory for the clash of security and freedom" that those X-Men and Avengers movies are always on about—but sure.  Why not?  The critics attempting to find deep meaning in these adornments are mostly making themselves look foolish; Incredibles 2 is about everything, and nothing, and so settles, quite successfully, on being about itself.

Particularly since being about itself gives Incredibles 2 permission to go about being the best superhero movie it could possibly be—or almost the best, I suppose.  (As noted, it does not have the best screenplay: the "twist" here is so offensively obvious that even the characters ought to see it coming, based on their own recent experience if nothing else.  There's even a specific part where I thought they were eliding the exposition behind a too-easy-victory because it was so obvious they hadn't accomplished anything yet; but it turned out only that Elastigirl was genuinely that clueless.)  Even so: the plot, derivative and even lazy as it may be, does not fail to be a solid line upon which to hang the things that actually matter in this sequel, namely the fractious dynamic of the Parr family (whom we do like), and possibly the most spectacular and inventive superhero razzmatazz one of these superhero films has managed to date.

In retrospect, it seems kind of inevitable that animation would be the medium that raised the bar for the genre—superhero comic books, after all, are not usually collections of photographs, and are not only not known for realism, they're sort of famous for their rejection of it—but Incredibles 2 does something that doesn't seem at all inevitable, even having seen it, which is raise Pixar's bar, for what must be the dozenth time now.  (Take that, Coco, which I heretofore thought may well have represented a dull plateau for Pixar from which no further ascent was possible.)

Bird oversees a film that only sparingly updates its 2004-vintage character designs—sometimes to not entirely satisfactory results, as there's something uncanny about Elastigirl's already-fetishy, zaftig-from-the-waist-down construction, at least when it's married to 2018 walking mechanics—but it puts those designs into a world, the same 60s-inspired neverwhen of Michael Giacchino brass and clean mod lines, only better, and brings them to the bleeding edge in terms of technical prowess and animated "cinematography," to the extent that it feels unfair to even put that word in scare-quotes.  It does not do this in the same way that (for example) The Good Dinosaur did, where technical capability was used to simply make a photoreal environment for its squishy cartoons to interact with.  The Incredibles 2 naturally adopts the same general kind of graphic quality of the first—the bold colors filling pop art outlines—and it even intensifies that aesthetic, while nevertheless applying the deftest kind of sculptured lighting to it, making every frame feel like the best-composed kind of superhero film, without ever losing the primal, two-dimensional punch of an actual superhero comic.  So one of my favorite little things in the movie is the way an electrically powered minor character's lightning bolts look like they were handdrawn on a cel; and my very favorite little thing about it is the scene where Bob and the kids are watching a Johnny Quest cartoon, and it's just a Johnny Quest cartoon—with the flattest possible animation, courtesy Hanna-Barbera and all their company's dubious skills—juxtaposed against the 3D-inspired-by-2D renderings of the movie's "real" world, and then juxtaposed again, against the flattest establishing shot in the film.  It made me blink and wonder if maybe Edna Mode's mansion actually was a background painting.

And those are just the little things!  The big things are brawny, burly things, but no less careful for their controlled chaos: the sole aspect of Incredibles 2's incredible action scenes that one could feasibly call disappointing is that they come in descending order of quality, starting with the uncompleted battle with the Underminer from the first film, which is a master-class on meaningless superheroics done absolutely flawlessly, from the moment-to-moment staging of all the heroes and their powers to the sheer Silver Age awesomeness of the Underminer's (successful!) plan to rob a whole street's worth of banks by dropping their classically-colonnaed structures a hundred fathoms down into his subterranean realm.  Then again: on the level of sheer abstract color, the psyschedelic initial confrontation with the Screenslaver (strobe warning, my friends—I'm surprised but pleased that Disney let Bird get away with this) may be this film's actual highpoint; or maybe that's the mechanics of Elastigirl's powers (already the best part of The Incredibles), once again representing Bird at his most intoxicatingly Birdian, taking an interesting physics concept as far as his visual imagination can carry him, which is quite far indeed.  But the latter half of the film does slide a tiny bit in quality—the climax is, I think, inspired by Speed 2, and its stakes only fully manifest at the very end; and, as this film involves mind control, it's no surprise that Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl are eventually put at odds, but their battles, short and sweet as they are, do not establish who could kick whose ass (my money's on Elastigirl, clearly).  Still, you know, when you're falling down only a little from "almost unbelievably good," you're surely doing fine.

Meanwhile, we do have the Parrs themselves, and they're great.  Holly Hunter and Craig T. Nelson are every bit as invested and fantastic as they were the first time around, and they're given almost as much to do, even if it's kind-of the same things.  (Though it must be said: the movie has given up slightly on the kids, putting Sarah Vowell's Violet through, at most, the illusion of a character arc, while not even bothering with the illusion for Dash—though, on the plus side, Huck Milner is doing a superb impression of Spencer Fox, and Dash, being by far the least interesting of the quartet, does not actually suffer from being downgraded to Violet's foil.)  Sam Jackson's incredibly-recognizable voice remains borderline-distracting as Frozone, though it's still a technically strong performance; Bob Odendirk and Catherine Keener fill out the major voice cast as the Deavon siblings, and Keener, in particular, is doing God's work with practically nothing.  (I wouldn't have expected, in 2018, that I'd watch two movies in a row with throwback 60s-style lesbian coding, but there's Ocean's Eight, and here's Keener and Evelyn's designers and animators, making quite sure we do get it, and this time it actually does enrich the character, even if it's maybe not the best stereotype to be throwing ourselves back to.)

The script they're all reading is as funny and breezy as anything we're likely to hear this summer—maybe Bird didn't need to reach too hard for his scenario, but he put real energy into fleshing it out—and the Elastigirl material is so tremendously thrilling that it even engenders enough goodwill to get through the Mr. Incredible/Mr. Mom riff, which I didn't expect to be pleased with no matter what.  Somehow, it actually does wind up being a useful decompression even at its most blatantly and idiosyncratically indulgent, like the extended jokes about "the New Math," aimed at I don't even know whom,  Bird's dad, maybe, and certainly nobody young enough to be in this film's target audience of small children and the Millennials who loved the original; there's also a part where Jack-Jack fights a racoon for five straight minutes (and yes, seriously).  But the benefit of it being so good so often is that you're never angrily waiting for the movie to get back to its best stuff, even when you do recognize that you are waiting.

So I was miraculously wrong about this one—well, at least on its merits.  Objectively, it is just Disney making money on decade-old dreams, and while I don't have anything specifically against that, I know that many do, and for reasons I can sympathize with.  But when the results are this pleasurable—this is absolutely better cinema than The Incredibles, even if it might not be "a better movie"—I honestly can't care, not even a little.  Let 'em keep making cash-grab sequels until they stop making me happy; by the evidence of Incredibles 2, that'll be a long time coming.

Score: 9/10

Despite being just about straight-up two hours long, Incredibles 2 is preceded by a (dare I say?) macabre short film, this time one Pixar actually did themselves: "Bao," by Domee Shi.  It's a terrifically strange little fairy tale, revolving around an aging and lonely wife who, one day, wills into existence a child out of the form of a dumpling—she discovers his sentience when she tries to take a giant bite out of his cheek.  She dotes on her bizarre creation, but he is a child, and grows to both stake out his own independence and resent her for the sharp limits she places upon it, and you can see how it goes.  It would probably be a solid little comic melodrama even without the central conceit of the dumpling child; with the dumpling child, it is magnetic and weird as hell.

It's actually quite lovely, though the character design is a challenge—if Shi said her goal was to recapture the questionable cuteness of the best anti-Asian propaganda of the late 1880s, it would be wholly believable, and I suppose that's just fine (though we can be thankful it's a Chinese-American director trying to pull this feat off).  However, the way the thick diagonal slashes of black representing her characters' eyes interact with her characters' 3-D faces is extremely odd, bordering on the genuinely unnerving—you keep wanting to read a dimensionality into those black eyes, though they have none to give you (it's maybe not that dissimilar to Blue Sky's Peanuts film, but lacks the flatness of the figures that made the idea fully-functional)—and the result is some upsetting-looking closeups that really don't quite work.  But there's a touch of greatness here, either way, and even if it is weird—I believe it must be the weirdest, and darkest, of all of Pixar's shorts—it's nonetheless compelling as a frankly harrowing deep dive into the tormented inner psyche of some Asian kid with a stultifyingly overbearing mom he still can't help but love (I was surprised Shi turned out to be a woman herself, but I suppose the basic premise must apply to daughters at least as much as it does to sons).  And  it's moving, too, in the finest Pixar tradition and then some.  Plus, hey, it's way better than "Olaf's Frozen Adventure," the five hour-long piece of shit they showed in front of Coco in the name of ugly cross-merchandising; it is also infinitely better than Pixar's homegrown abomination, "Lava."  For what it is, it's a solid 8/10.


  1. I think that New Math joke was a jab at Common Core, which is more current than I think you were giving it credit for.

    And I'm glad to hear the strobe scene was actually good, so at least it was worth something. To answer your question, my headache response to lights IS delayed, but especially if its a strobing effect or a bright light in a dark room, it immediately leaves an afterimage like when you look at the sun and can still see it when you blink. Not fun

    1. Yeah, I get the gag now. And it does fit the period setting (as long as we're willing to be lax on pinning it to any year more specific than 196x).

      And nope, photosensitivity does not sound like fun at all.