It’s been 14 years since the premiere of Brad Bird’s beloved animated superhero film, “The Incredibles,” one of the mega-hit Pixar films that cemented the animation studio’s reputation as the production company for film humor and heart that would satisfy both parents and children. With cool mid-century flair and eye-popping spectacle, “The Incredibles” sent up superhero and spy tropes, but ultimately, it’s a family story. Happily, Bird has pulled it off again, in the long-awaited sequel “Incredibles 2,” which is as good, if not better than the original.
Bird smartly blends emotion and action for a superhero film that has real stakes and impact. It helps that it’s funny. In an era of superhero fatigue, “Incredibles 2” reminds us that superheroes, ultimately, were supposed to be fun. While live-action superhero films flail at trying to figure out if they’re dark, gritty or witty, “Incredibles 2” is unabashedly a blast, without any identity crisis. However, within this fantastical world, it actually feels like the characters are in real peril, an element that’s gone missing from blockbuster action franchises, where it seems like death is never really an option.
In “Incredibles 2,” the Parr family, longing to live a normal life, is enlisted in a PR campaign to make superheroes legal again. Winston (Bob Odenkirk) and Evelyn (Catherine Keener), the wealthy sibling benefactors on their side, have both the means and the motivation to rehabilitate the superhero image, and they enlist Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) in a media blitz to make super-powered crime fighting look good. Soon, she’s taking on a mysterious villain, Screenslaver, who hypnotizes his victims with glowing screens (sound familiar?).
Meanwhile, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) finds he’s not so incredible at being Mr. Mom while he cares for angsty tween Violet (Sarah Vowell), super-charged Dash (Huck Milner) and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), who he discovers has a host of different and equally challenging - though very entertaining - superpowers.
Bird threads several smart themes throughout “Incredibles 2,” about gender roles in the workplace and at home, the media’s role in politics and our collective addictions to screens. While he never really goes deep in unpacking these ideas, there’s much more to the substantive story than just action and humor - it hits that sweet spot of satisfaction for both younger and older audiences.
The animation is just as jaw-dropping. It’s more technologically advanced than the original film, but Bird maintains the retro 1950s aesthetic. The Parrs live in a strange land where mid-century styling, including the TVs, cars, stunning modernist architecture and kitschy Tiki details coexist along with highly advanced technology. Along with Michael Giacchino’s addictive, spy movie-inspired score, it makes for a film with a snazzy singular style.
Most impressively, for all the slick panache Bird and his team of animators have brought to the style of “Incredibles 2,” they’ve built in the most important element of all - actual danger, which creates actual emotional investment. When Elastigirl tries out her new motorcycle, she skids and teeters, and when she’s in pursuit of a runaway high-speed train, we feel her effort, despite all her impressive superpowers.
In a cinematic landscape where it seems like consequences, hazards, injury and even death are no longer a factor, it’s possibly the most remarkable achievement of all that Bird has made a film that puts both the danger — and the fun — back into superhero stories.