It’s been two weeks since I saw The Incredibles 2, and while the film’s muddy central message about the complexities of superheroes has already begun to fade from memory, its best action sequence has purchased long-term residence.
[Warning: this post contains spoilers for The Incredibles 2]
Director Brad Bird is a master of humongous action set pieces, from the jungle chase in the original Incredibles to the Burj Khalifa climb in Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol. He’s also an underrated expert in animated comedy, having contributed to The Simpsons’ golden age. Incredibles 2 has a handful of strong set pieces, but the best blends Birds’ twin talents. I’m talking about the baby-vs.-raccoon showdown.
Paradoxically high-stakes and low-stakes, highbrow and lowbrow, the backyard brawl reintroduces the audience (and eventually Mr. Incredible) to baby Jack Jack’s suite of superpowers. But rather than pit Jack Jack against a super villain, we watch the infant brutally punish a racoon for the minor crime of snooping through the family’s garbage.
It plays like a classic vaudeville two hander, Jack Jack’s powers escalating each time the raccoon manages to get an upper hand.
Bird shoots the sequence like a Jackie Chan fight, limiting the cuts, and often keeping both Jack Jack and the raccoon entirely within the frame so that both the action and humor are easy to read. Bird knows the critter’s reactions deserve just as much screen time as Jack Jack’s incredible powers. A child disappearing into an alternate dimension is funny, but it’s even funnier when we get to see how abjectly terrifying this is for the raccoon fighting him. Flame baby, metal baby, goblin baby, goblin flame baby: every few seconds we discover a new power or combination, the reveals paced with the precision of a pop hit.
The rest of Incredibles 2 features the spectacle audiences have been trained to expect from the modern superhero film, a handful of heroes fighting a couple of villains across a booming metropolis, creating a wake of destruction and insurance payouts. And like its contemporaries, the bigger Incredibles 2’s set pieces become, the greater the challenge to follow the action. Bird demonstrates top tier chops with his choreography, but even the best directors can only do so much with action sequences involving speeding hover trains, cruise liners and jet planes, along with a bundle of family members, side characters and the population of a city in peril. Even when you can follow what’s happening in the conclusions, the film is thrilling but also emotionally thin. When everything and everyone is in danger, it’s hard to care about any of them.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that the movie’s best action sequence is set within the confines of a residential backyard. Sure, there’s no runaway train to stop, no city to save. But Jack Jack’s a newborn baby — alone! He has superpowers, but he still seems vulnerable. He’s in control of the fight, but in no way in control of himself. What’s scarier than the raccoon is the chance his powers may overwhelm him, destroying to the runt in a horrific ball of flames or flurry of laser beams.
This risk — and simplicity — makes the backyard brawl the most potent and affective action scene in the film. The scope makes it easier to follow; very clear stakes makes it easier to care. Sure, you could argue it’s a repeat of Jack Jack’s short film, which followed the release of the first Incredibles, but it’s more like a final version compared to the short’s rough draft. It adds conflict and danger, threading what happened in the short film into the the sequel for those who might have missed it, improving on it with superior choreography and a decade plus of computer-animation artistry.
For two weeks now, I’ve been recommending folks see Incredibles 2, because even if I can’t remember much of the plot, the price of admission is worth it for a scrappy fight that’s unforgettable.