There are many movies that would be good if they stood alone but, produced as sequels, come up short. No one would have blamed Pixar if The Incredibles 2 proved to be one of those movies. The original film was a classic, easily one of the best five films Pixar has done, perhaps one of the top three. Following that kind of an act is hard. Very hard.
But the shortcomings of The Incredibles 2 are more than a little sequel driven disappointment. The film lacks focus, vision and the parts of its characters that we loved the most. As a story it’s disjointed and has no real arc for most of its characters. And worst of all, it feels like it started taking itself too seriously, where the original was so self aware it brought us the term monologing. What am I talking about?
Let’s start with the characters. That’s where the biggest and most egregious errors came from. The only character in this film that has anything that feels like an arc is Bob Parr, Mr. Incredible. That may be unsurprising, given that he was the last film’s main character, but everything else about the story feels like it’s constructed to make Helen the main character. She’s the one out in the world, confronting the driving conflicts. But nearly half of the film is spent on Bob trying to be a stay at home dad to his kids, which is funny and lets us see a lot of the three younger Parrs who were all very fun in the previous film, but the problem is Bob doesn’t really have any conflict here, he just needs to get to know his kids a little. He does, we do, and that’s it.
Now, one of the best parts of The Incredibles was how charming and authentic the Parrs felt, not just as individuals but as a family. And that charm and authenticity is in this movie as well. But in the original, we got to see the Parrs as a family engage with the story and its conflict. In the sequel, the Parrs are a quirky family or superheroes for most of the time, rather than being the quirky family of superheroes they were at the end of the last film. Bob getting more invested in his family is nice, and he rarely seemed deeply involved with his kids in the first film, so this is at least a step forward for his character. It just feels extraneous. The writers at Pixar didn’t take the time to work all these character bits into the story in any way, and that’s lazy because it leaves us with a bunch of stuff in the middle that feels aimless.
Violet also shows a little character growth in this film. Where in the first film she was too shy to talk to her crush Tony, now she’s putting a little too much of her own value in holding on to that achievement and when it slips away from her she’s crushed. By the end of the film we see her a little more confident in her own standing, willing to leave Tony on the street corner while she rushes off to help her family with a quick bout of hero work. Likewise, at the start of the film she’s irritated with being left in a defensive role but by the end she realizes that her skillset makes her more suited to play support than anyone else in the family and makes peace with it. These are both good character beats for Violet but we don’t see anything but the beginning and end of them, whereas the previous film clearly shows violet’s struggle with being confident and the very moment when she stands up and takes control of her fate on Syndrome’s Island. Also tying both of her character arcs back to Tony is kinda lame.
Beyond these poorly executed character arcs no one in The Incredibles 2 changes or grows. Dash’s desire to test himself from the first film was one of the most understandable and relatable things in the original, and he even got to formulate one of the film’s core ideas, that if everyone is special no one is. In the sequel he just gets distracted by gadgets. And Helen has something that could be a character arc, doing much of what Bob was doing in the last film and trying to push Supers back into the limelight, but again that doesn’t seem to challenge her in any way. Other than lampshading how it makes her a bit of a hypocrite, the story does not force her to justify what she’s doing in anyway or admit to Bob that he was right about how necessary bringing Supers back was. Likewise, while she misses JackJack’s first power, that’s never presented as a heavy moment for her. Helen just goes out, does some heroing, and comes home. It lacks weight.
In fact, the whole conflict in the film lacks weight. The original film made it seem like Supers were coming back already, a whole second film about making superheroes legal again feels extraneous. And the fights with the Screenslaver also lack weight. It’s not gory or in your face but the fact is, in The Incredibles people tried to kill each other and died quite a bit. There’s a suicide attempt in the first two minutes. Mr. Incredible finds the corpse of one of his friends rotted to a skeleton in a cave. A lot of Syndrome’s minions meet with fiery ends. That kind of immediate danger feels absent from The Incredibles 2 with its low impact mind control plot and general lack of menace. Perhaps that’s meant partly as a reflection on Evelyn, who is a pretty lackluster villain, but mostly it feels like the movie is just going through the motions.
There was an interview with Brad Bird which I recall reading in which he said the studio was open to making another Incredibles film so long as they could come up with a good story. At the time I wasn’t sure what he meant. Now, I suspect that he had set out to tell a story he had strong feelings about and had worked out all the details for, but once it was over he had nothing more he really wanted to say there. The problem was, people (Bird included) loved the characters and world that came out of that story. So Pixar cast about for ideas about what to do with them next, and over time half formed ideas drifted together and formed the core of this sequel. Pixar is an excellent creative studio, so they were able to grasp all the charm and heart of those characters. But without a story to drive them forward a part of the magic was lost. The Parrs remain in very much the same place they were at the end of their first film and it’s painful to see. Maybe they didn’t need a sequel. Maybe there is a better format to try this with. But for now, I’m content to consider the Incredibles franchise complete. If Bird is wise he won’t reopen it until he has somewhere to go.