Edwin: As lead vocal trio Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson and Samuel L. Jackson and writer/director Brad Bird comically remind viewers in a promo prior to Incredibles 2, it’s been 14 years since we last saw Pixar’s superheroes. Was it worth the wait or does the revered animation studio need to quit making sequels and focus on original works like Coco?
Christopher Oakley: At a studio the size and calibre of Pixar, there's room for sequels and original films — so long as the sequels are wanted by the public and worthy of the franchise. I would argue Cars 2 and 3 didn't really need to exist, although I quite enjoyed Cars 3. In the new features department, The Good Dinosaur should have been scrapped when it was still on paper.
Edwin: Just when I thought I’d wiped that damn dinosaur movie from my mind...
Christopher: But other than those missteps, Pixar has an unparalleled record of proving it can walk and chew gum at the same time. It's arguably the most successful film studio in history.
Edwin: Agreed, and I consistently look forward to each new release, whether it’s a sequel or an original story.
Christopher: When I first saw The Incredibles 14 years ago, I was blown away by the look and technical innovations of the film. But the story left me...cold. I rewatched the original earlier this year and was surprised to have an opposite response. I was drawn into the story, the characters and the performances. But the visuals look hopelessly dated. They were avoiding cloth simulation like the plague ("No capes!") and the textures and lighting look thin and dull, especially when compared to the rich look of the Toy Story films and even A Bug's Life.
Edwin: I had a similar reaction. I’d long held The Incredibles as my favorite Pixar film and thought the visuals were all cutting-edge at the time, but now the human faces look cheap and simplistic. However, I wasn’t distracted much by the landscapes, inanimate objects and “special effects,” and think the action sequences on Syndrome’s island hold up especially well. But that’s why we have your professional eyes to tell us why certain things don’t look quite right!
Christopher: Each of these features take about five years to make, from concept to finished film. Usually a year or so in, it's necessary to "lock tech," so that you can actually make the movie and stop remaking things when emerging technology offers a better solution. This may have been part of the issue with The Incredibles. But 14 (well, 10 actually) years later, the technology needed to make Incredibles 2 has vastly improved, and Pixar and Bird use every second of the film to put it fully on display. If it takes 14 years to truly realize a worthy sequel based on a solid story and the bells and whistles of new technology, I'm all for waiting as long as I need to.
Edwin: Despite the break between films, Part Deux picks up right where the its predecessor left off with The Underminer (Pixar MVP John Ratzenberger) threatening Metroville and the newly united Parr family — Mr. Incredible (Nelson), Elastigirl (Hunter), Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner) and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) — suiting up to save the day. I can’t remember the last time I saw such a clear “pause/play” approach to a sequel, but it immediately drew me back into this world. Were you similarly hooked?
Christopher: Yes! The use of The Underminer's attack to bridge the two films was a brilliant choice because it helps you almost immediately forget how different this new world of The Incredibles actually is. I was immediately reminded of my favorite Simpsons episode, when normally flat, traditionally-drawn Homer becomes a 3D digital Homer. There's an initial shock of seeing him that way, but as soon as the animation begins and we hear Homer's familiar voice, we leap into that new world and believe that it is our favorite bumbling numbskull. In Incredibles 2, as soon as we hear the recognizable cast voices, we make a similar leap into this upscaled world and are immediately immersed into the continuing story. It's almost as if you paused only to clean your glasses and now you can really see.
Edwin: That’s an excellent point about the technological amnesia Bird renders. Memory also comes into play as Elastigirl is recruited by siblings Evelyn (Catherine Keener) and Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) to help sway public and political opinion on the legalization of superheroes — both in terms of people being reminded of Supers’ benefits and new villain The Screenslaver manipulating minds with high-tech hypnosis.
Christopher: Speaking of the intervening 14 years, I was struck by how well Incredibles 2 anticipated the Me Too movement. Do you think Bird, who has sole writing credit, was being prescient when he wrote the screenplay?
Edwin: At the very least, I think he was responding to a lack of female superheroes, but whatever the inspiration, the concept of Elastigirl becoming the family breadwinner and Mr. Incredible grudgingly accepting the stay-at-home dad role feels remarkably modern. I think it’s smart storytelling and on the domestic front results in some of the film’s best gags, especially with the rise of Jack-Jack’s unusual gifts.
Christopher: Absolutely! Bird is letting the ladies have their say by focusing the story so heavily on the powers of Elastigirl, Violet, costume designer Edna (Bird himself), shy superhero Voyd (Sophia Bush) and the new and always surprising Evelyn, a brilliant but laid-back woman who is the technical wizard of her family-owned company. It's as if the female characters are saying to all the males, "Don't worry, guys. We've got this." And it only takes a few minutes of babysitting the kids for Mr. Incredible to realize just how super his wife actually is. This, of course, is going to make for incredible box office. It's the perfect "date" film. Something for everyone to see, over and over again.
Edwin: It feels like vintage Pixar from the era before Brave diluted the brand a tad.
Christopher: True. While there's visually much to admire about that film, I refer to it as "The Bear and the Hair." It's all about her hair! And yet the most interesting (and underused) character in the story is the bear.
Edwin: Also, it’s nice to have Bird back in animation. I think his live-action jaunts with Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and Tomorrowland have helped improve his direction and storytelling skills.
Christopher: I disagree about the storytelling. Every frame of his 1999 feature-length debut The Iron Giant comes from a filmmaker who's at the top of his game, seeing his vision of the characters flow through. With John Lasseter now out as chief creative officer for both Disney and Pixar, I think Bird should take his place. He's proven he knows how to tell a story, and at Disney and Pixar, story is everything. He's also shown us over and over that he understands kids and their complex emotions (just look at how brilliantly he handles Hogarth Hughes in his first film!) and the conflicting joys and frustrations that parents have for their children. Jack-Jack's emerging powers is essentially every parent's dream and nightmare all rolled up into one little baby. Would you agree?
Edwin: I do — it’s hyperbolic metaphoric writing at its best, and far more effective for me than the bizarre, borderline disturbing yet occasionally hilarious short Bao that precedes the feature. On top of this sophisticated narrative are thrilling action sequences that are also visually easy to follow. As big live-action set pieces grow increasingly homogenous, Incredibles 2 made me wonder why Marvel and DC don’t turn to animation more often to achieve a level of creativity that they’re struggling to attain with CGI.
Christopher: While we split on the evolution of Bird's writing, I think you're right that those live-action films gave Bird a grounding in how to propel a story forward during non-stop action sequences. I'm personally frustrated with filmmakers vomiting CGI all over the screen (James Cameron, Michael Bay, etc.), to very little effect. It's like going into an art museum like the Louvre, where there are so many paintings on the wall you can't see any wall. It's exhausting. Bird focuses on making sure every frame advances the story — but that's what you have to do in animation because it's so expensive to produce.
Edwin: Back to your experienced professional eyes, what technological advances did you notice on an initial viewing of Incredibles 2? And are there areas where you see room for improvement?
Christopher: The cloth simulation was fantastic, but not overused. Suits, shirts, dresses all moved believably but didn't call attention to themselves. Hair simulation was fantastic as well, especially on Edna's Edith Head 'do. The skin textures were far more advanced than we've previously seen in these characters. I especially enjoyed that Mr. Incredible developed a 5 o'clock shadow whenever it's later in the day and he's home. But to an animator's eye, you can see that the crew had far more robust characters and "rigs" (what's used to move the character) at their disposal. Overall, the advances in RenderMan (Pixar's rendering software) and lighting/shading/texturing have vastly improved over even just the past five years.
Edwin: Not to keep harkening back to the glory days of Pixar, but Incredibles 2 has renewed my amazement at the visual leaps made with each new film and my curiosity regarding what they're capable of crafting with current tech.
Christopher: One thing that did bother me was that there are costume changes for everyone except Winston, who appears to wear the same suit throughout the film. In 14 years, we may look back on Incredibles 2 and find it's look lacking. But I doubt it. In the end, it doesn't matter so much how technically advanced a film is. If it's telling a good story, audiences will embrace it.
Edwin: I think that's why I still hold the original Incredibles in such high esteem. Unlike when I first saw it, the latest viewing had me tearing up at a few moments when the Parrs are in peril, so I consider that a testament to Bird's sharp writing. He's on his game once more here and his newest creation will be tough to top as other feature animated challengers roll out in the remainder of 2018. I give it an A-minus and will be happy to revisit it for years to come.
Christopher: I give it a strong A-minus, but upon repeated viewings I think that may climb when I see connections I'd previously missed.
Grade: A-minus. Rated PG. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande, Carolina Cinemark and Grail Moviehouse
(Photos: Walt Disney Studios)