After moving to live-action fare with some success in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” but then flopping badly with “Tomorrowland,” writer-director Brad Bird has returned to his comfort zone—following the pattern that Alfred Hitchcock called “running for cover” whenever one of his pictures failed with moviegoers—by mounting a long-rumored sequel to his greatest hit, 2004’s “The Incredibles.” Though that movie wasn’t really one of Pixar’s best—it was pretty much a standard-issue superhero spoof, though with splendid visuals—it was a smash, so a return to it must have seemed a Bird sanctuary.
Though separated from its predecessor by nearly a decade-and-a-half, “Incredibles 2” takes up shortly after the original left off, and with one exception the central voice cast remains the same. Once again the animation is spectacular, but on a narrative level the picture treads an all-too-familiar path, not just in its action trajectory but in terms of present-day bromides about girl power and family dynamics.
The clan—Bob Parr, aka Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Watson), his wife Helen, aka Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) and son Dash (Huck Milner, replacing Spencer Fox)—are supposed, like other superheroes, to refrain from using their powers and lead quiet lives. But when their old nemesis Underminer (John Ratzenberger) reappears, they spring into action. Though they prevent him from robbing a bank, the level of collateral damage brings further governmental restrictions, even compelling the family’s handler Dicker (Jonathan Banks) to close down his limited program entirely.
Fortunately the superhero cause is taken up by wealthy mogul Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener), who propose that Elastigirl come out of hiding to become the city’s protector. While she’s away, Bob will be a stay-at-home dad. As such he has to contend with Dash’s desire to go super. More importantly, he’s confronted by Violet’s anger over Dicker’s using his amnesia machine on Tony (Michael Bird), the boy she likes, who saw her in super-action but now doesn’t even recall knowing her, and the emergence of unpredictable powers in the Parr infant, Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile). The pressure eventually convinces him to leave the baby with Edna Mole (Bird), who quickly rejoices in the opportunity to train him.
Meanwhile Elastigirl is forced to deal with a powerful new villain, Screenslaver (Bill Wise), who uses radio waves to hypnotize and control people through what they watch. Eventually she, Bob and a bevy of other superheroes—including the family’s closest friend Lucius Best, aka Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson)—fall under his spell, and it’s up to the kids to mount a rescue. Can they free their parents from his control and save the world? Let’s just say it seems likely.
The action-adventure portion of “Incredibles 2” is, quite frankly, trite stuff, not unlike the sort of thing you’d find in live-action/CGI examples of the genre. A runaway train sequence, for instance, might put you in mind of the one from “Spider-Man 2,” or even more recent flicks like the last “Maze Runner” movie or even “Solo.” It, along with the other action sequences, are well enough done, but the only thing that distinguishes them is that, being animated, they don’t look phony in quite the same way as the artificially-enhanced ones in the supposedly live-action movies of this type.
Those sequences, moreover, don’t contain much humor, nor does the “who’s the villain?” material afford much surprise; even a child will probably figure out the identity of the ultimate bad-guy before it’s revealed. Most of the fun comes from the domestic part of the script. The “bachelor father” theme might have sitcom roots, but Bird and company manage to use it to some good comedic effect, especially in terms of Jack-Jack’s antics, while the Violet-Tony subplot adds a touch of teen romance, nicely handled. And, of course, everyone is bound to enjoy the reappearance of Edna, the wittiest aspect of the first installment, who certainly makes the most of her relatively brief scenes here.
Among animated superhero spoofs, “The Lego Batman Movie” certainly exhibits greater imagination and pizzazz than either of the “Incredibles” movies. But they have more heart, which probably explains why they are so popular. This sequel can’t match the first, but it’s good enough to make folks forget “Tomorrowland” and give Bird the chance to take a greater risk next time around.
The movie is preceded by a Pixar short, Domee Shi’s “Bao,” about a Chinese woman who imagines that one of her homemade dumplings comes to life and that she raises it as her son. As it proceeds “Bao” becomes a touching portrait of family dysfunction whose quiet charm, as it happens, stands in stark contrast to the hyperactivity of the movie that follows it.