Time was, the release of a new Pixar film was more than a blessed cinematic event, it was a revelation: Their initial stretch run, beginning roughly with the release of the first Toy Story in 1995 and running through Toy Story 3 in 2010 was pretty unassailable -- with only the rare desultory misfire (Cars) to besmirch their otherwise pristine track record.
The highlights were sublime -- besides the Toy Story franchise, there were such divergently engaging and wonderful films as Up, The Incredibles, WALL-E, and my personal favorite, Ratatouille -- and even their lesser films, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, A Bug's Life, had a great deal to recommend them.
87 Cast: (voices of) Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huckl Milner, Catherine Keener, Eli Fucile, Bob Odenkirk, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Bird, Sophie Bush, Brad Bird, Phil Lamarr, Isabella Rossellini
Director: Brad Bird
Rating: PG, for action sequences and some brief mild language
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Each release became a further testament to just how far they had pushed the children's animation game. Once, ground simply conceded to Disney and their largely monochromatic churn of releases, became a battleground of escalating budgets, emphasis, and swelling creative departments as studios large and small saw the light: In order to compete in the kids' market, you had to bring your 'A' game, or not bother trying. Naturally, this escalation more or less concluded with Disney buying Pixar outright, and tying them into their own corporate monolith.
It's too facile to say from that point on, Pixar's films suffered. After all, Disney's buy-out came in 2006, and since then -- given an appropriate three-year window post-purchase for films already in the pipeline -- Pixar has made at least a pair of classics. There was the aforementioned Toy Story 3, and Inside Out. And they've taken appropriate chances with new, original fare (Brave, Coco) that might not have quite fired on all cylinders, but were worthy attempts.
What there has also been, is a plethora of sequels, as the studio has shifted more to the well-worn philosophy that an audience will react more favorably (and financially) to familiar properties. It's the franchise restaurant approach, where a family in an unfamiliar setting can relax knowing the Applebee's outside their hotel will serve the same BBQ Brisket Tacos as the one in their hometown.
That brings us to this film, helmed, as with the first installment, by longtime Pixar MVP, Brad Bird. Bird has made a pair of live-action films, including the strong Mission:Impossible -- Ghost Protocol, and the weak Tomorrowland since his last go-round with the animation studio.
But he's returned to the Parr family of superpowered beings -- Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (voice of Craig T. Nelson), Helen Parr/Elastigirl (voice of Holly Hunter), Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile). Barred by their own government from intervening on behalf of innocent people, they exist in kind of a gray zone, using their powers for good given any opportunity, but forced to hide themselves and hide the good they are doing for fear of official reprisal.
Which is why, when summoned by a mysterious stranger to meet and discuss a proposal to get the world to change the anti-hero law, Mr. Incredible leaps at the chance. The stranger turns out to be Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), a fabulously rich young entrepreneur who, along with his tech-savvy sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener) has long worshipped heroes and very much wants them back in action.
His plan involves what he describes as superior "PR," using just one member of the family -- Elastigirl, to Mr. Incredible's disappointment -- to do specific, targeted "good" deeds, and thus slowly help sow a more positive public response and make the world's governments begin to accept them.
In order to accomplish this, as Elastigirl is sent out in the field, Bob has to do the whole Mr. Mom thing -- trying to help Violet with a boy problem; Dash with his incomprehensible math homework; all while keeping baby Jack-Jack, who seems to have every superpower under the sun, from blowing up the house. As Elastigirl starts making inroads toward positive public perception, Bob starts to crumble from lack of sleep and disappointing returns on his efforts.
Naturally, not everything Deavor has promised is quite as it seems at first, and when a powerful new adversary, Screenslaver (Bill Wise), appears on media screens all over the country, taking over a broadcast signal with a powerful blast of hypno-tech, the onus is on Elastigirl to stop him, while fretting that her family is starting to crack without her there.
Don't get me wrong, I have no particular bone to pick with the film as such -- it hits many of the same sweet notes of action/comedy and familial-related emotion that its predecessor (and much of Pixar's entire catalog) routinely strike. It also folds in themes of female empowerment, mass media consumption, and the hypocrisy of governments running policies of public perception -- but what it decidedly doesn't do is push its characters into uncharted waters.
It's been 14 years since we've last seen the Parrs, but as if stuck in amber nuggets, they don't seem to have changed in the slightest: Violet is still at the point of awkward adolescence; Dash is still annoyingly self-assured; Jack-Jack is still an infant, albeit one displaying a full range of peculiar powers.
In other words, the film is about as iron-clad safe as it could have been, with many reprisals and echoes from the first film, and just the slightest hint of growth on behalf of the Parr parents, as they grow into their new familial roles together.
You can't call it a failure, in that sense, anyone who enjoyed the first film is practically bound to enjoy the new one, but it also takes absolutely no chances with any of its material. It gives the audience what is most obvious to offer, but doesn't attempt to go any deeper.
Whatever inspiration behind Pixar's initial run of brilliance, a big part of their ethos was to make kids' films differently than had been done before. At one point, they were trailblazing children's entertainment, and delighting both kids and their beleaguered parents in the process. Now, far too often, like a band living off of previous success, they keep their greatest hits tour going without anything that feels strikingly new.
Feted by their previous triumphs, I fear they have fallen largely complacent, and gone softly middle-aged.
MovieStyle on 06/15/2018
Print Headline: Below Parr; Incredibles 2 entertains but super family's growth -- and the story's -- seems stalled