There’s a certain alchemy at play here: Brad Bird is one of the only directors on par with Steven Spielberg when it comes to turning action sequences into absolute dynamite. His staging is impeccable, framing every jump and kick so that the eye knows exactly where to go, and fueled by ideas rather than just the necessity of getting from point A to point B.
Combine his sensibilities with a score by Michael Giacchino, who isn’t just emulating John Barry (who scored 11 of the James Bond films and met with Bird about composing for the movie) but feeding his aural aesthetic through a jazzy adrenaline high, and you get a movie that, 14 years on, still runs circles around its peers. The colors all pop, the score is full of catchy hooks, there’s not a single visually incoherent set piece, and the characters all land. Suffice to say that most of the superhero movies that have come out in the intervening years haven’t quite managed that gauntlet.
So what a delight it is that Incredibles 2, which picks up exactly where its predecessor left off, is full of the same verve.
This isn’t to say that it’s a retread; though Incredibles 2 is also a family story at its core, it’s also bigger in scale, and a little shakier as a result. The super-microcosmos of the Parr family — plus Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), of course — isn’t alone anymore. As the legality of superheroes comes into contention, the Parrs are brought into contact with other supers, and politics on a global scale.
Where the first film put strongman Bob (Craig T. Nelson) out in the field, this time it’s mom’s turn. When Helen (Holly Hunter) is recruited by media mogul siblings Winston (Bob Odenkirk) and Evelyn (Catherine Keener) to spearhead a superhero rebranding initiative, Bob is left at home to look after the kids. He’s got to deal with Violet (Sarah Vowell), who’s dealing with teen heartbreak; Dash (Huck Milner), who’s struggling with his math homework; and baby Jack-Jack, who is developing almost every conceivable power at once. The stay-at-home dad storyline may not exactly be breaking news, but it’s imperative grounding. Bird doesn’t go the tried-and-trite route of making rearing a family a chore; it’s tiring, certainly, but these superheroes — these people — love each other, and it’s necessary glue for the action that comes next.
As the story’s villain comes into play, the set pieces ramp up. Screenslaver, who hypnotizes people by broadcasting patterns on their screens, is a more immediately frightening foe compared to the first movie’s Syndrome, wearing a mask that negates the comfort offered by a literally and metaphorically animated face. The fact that Screenslaver deploys goons to go after the heroes rather than taking direct action also gives way to a tense tracking sequence seemingly torn from a spy thriller or a horror movie rather than a typical superhero flick.
Naturally, it’s the chases and fight sequences that are the greatest joys of Incredibles 2. The fact that it’s an animated movie, and the leaps and bounds in progress that have been made in animation over the past decade and a half, give it a distinct advantage over its peers. There’s no limit to where the camera can go, and what the characters can do.
When Helen goes after Screenslaver, it almost feels like she’s leveled up since the last film as she stretches out and snaps back into shape with a joyous fluidity that’s well-matched by her brand new motorcycle, which can split in half to accommodate the shape of its rider. It becomes evident just how careful Bird’s framing is when more superheroes get thrown into the mix, as the film’s sense of motion shifts to best showcase their respective powers. Take Voyd (Sophia Bush), for instance: she’s basically a human Portal gun, and as she uses her powers to create endless feedback loops or to vault characters from one place to another, the shots take on that same sense of suspended or abbreviated motion.
The “camera” is even more accommodating than it was in 2004, zipping around the scene and providing clarity even when the rubble starts flying. To that end, the film is miraculously cleaner than its contemporary peers — unlike the CGI soup that live-action superhero movies sometimes devolve into, it’s easy (and thrilling) to track the action in Incredibles 2 despite the fact that it’s technically all CGI.
With Giacchino back on board to score (just the first notes of the main theme are enough to get the blood pumping), the alchemic parts are all in place. Perhaps the best way to describe Incredibles 2 is to say that it has character — it’s not bound to a larger universe, and the freedom and distinct sense of personality that freedom allows is (fittingly enough, given the movie’s themes) what makes the film special.
Karen Han is a writer based in New York City. Her work appears on Vox.com, The Atlantic, SlashFilm, and New York magazine’s Vulture.