Now that we’re firmly in the decade of Pixar shoring up its status with sequels to best-in-show properties rather than adventurously casting off its lot in less-rehearsed, more invigorating directions, we can at least be pleased that this particular sequel is an excuse for Brad Bird to return to the world of Pixar. Which, apparently, is a generally commensurable company to house his relentlessly optimistic aesthetic indulgences in the widest-eyed corners of mid-century Americana and pulp sci-fi. And house it does! While Bird’s good-natured futurism felt awkward while navigating the confines and demands of live-action cinema in the sometimes-effervescent, sometimes-cloying, sometimes-unwieldy Tomorrowland, there’s a natural mutability to animation that fits Bird’s relatively (and gloriously) surface-bound style like a glove.
And to the surprise of no one, aesthetically speaking, Incredibles 2 is a gas, the giddiest approximation yet of the gee-whiz mid-century spirit clearly percolating in Bird’s head since the halcyon days of The Iron Giant (to which, say, Adult Swim’s terrific cartoon The Venture Bros. is the cracked-mirror negative double). After a few mostly realist animated pictures, it’s deeply gratifying to see Pixar return to the deliberately frivolous, gleefully foolish cartoon style that dances so recklessly in Bird’s head, and which animated (excuse the pun) the spirit of many of their best films (Bird’s Ratatouille, most of all). It’s gloriously insignificant, as beholden aesthetically as narratively to mid-century pop serial storytelling and comic book absurdity, much more vigorously enlivened with comic book zest than any live-action comic book movie released in the past few years, save the Guardians duology.
The film’s aesthetic highs really are nigh-insurmountable, qualifying Incredibles 2 as easily the best action film of 2018, and a deliciously warped one at that. The deliriously high-contrast, flattened planes of the opening sequence, where husband and wife Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and children Violet (Sarah Powell) and Dash (Huckleberry Milner), along with Mr. Incredible’s best friend Fro-Zone (Samuel Jackson), fight off the villainous Underminer (John Ratzenberger), are but the cork popping on this exceptionally fizzy superhero smorgasbord, a canvas for sheer cinematic craftsmanship. One that isn’t as radically visually deconstructionist as, say, the mid-century UPA shorts Bird clearly divines manna from, but it’s about as close as a 200 million dollar blockbuster can dare venture.
From there, the film is off to the races, at least stylistically speaking. Even better than the opening is a gloriously unhinged comic fracas between baby Incredible Jack-Jack and an invasive raccoon, a truly mischievous slug-fest with combatants who are entirely unhindered by the laws of gravity or bodily composure, a welcome invitation to the animators to indulge in Looney Tunes style bodily mutability. Best of all, though, is an incredible (again, pardon the pun) electro-shock of a cage match between Elastigirl and the semi-central villain Screenslaver that warps the cinematic screen into a convulsive full-frontal visual assault.
In the latter sequence, the film really does earn the UPA comparisons, and then some. That said, UPA’s short films were as much exploratory experiments in minimalism and geometry as they were conversations about the theoretical anxieties of mid-century existence. Animation, in many of the UPA shorts, was an adventure not only in style but an investigation in modernism, which is to say an attempt to explore the contours of distinctly modern kinds of instability and manipulate (if not contain) the always-altering, frequently unpredictable irregularity of a typically-oscillating new world. The shorts were conversation not only with Looney Tunes and Disney animation but Cubist and Dadaist concerns about the existential flux and hyper-sensory overload of life unmooring classical standards of fixity, harmony, and solidity.
Those shorts can’t but find themselves let loose in the swirling coordinates of modern life, a world threatening dissolution into endless chaos through the sheer un-quantifiability of motions and movements, ambiguities and contradictions, exciting currents of possibly unstable futures and permanent revolutions which were both founts of fear and manna for future possibility. They are put of the conversation about what Marx referred to as “all solid melting into air,” what Baudelaire and Benjamin transfigured as the distinctly peripatetic consciousness of modern urban life roaming between locations itinerantly, acknowledging the instability of everyday existence and, precisely via this pessimistic acknowledgment, catalyzing a hope for new forms of futurist possibility which could mobilize that uncertainty.
Comparatively, Bird’s vision of aesthetic style and futurity seem somewhat hidebound, and fairly beholden to classical notions of the future predicated on relatively stable social dilemmas and family forms. Which means that despite this screenplay’s attempts to emphasize Elastigirl’s breadwinning role, the film chooses not to truly endorse this change, or to really explore the questions it raises. The herky, jerky spirit of the animation manifests in the narrative as well, not (ideally) as a vigorously reckless indifference to theme (or the aforementioned experiment in modernity), but, rather, as a bizarrely over-stuffed attempt to cover all its bases, hectically hop-scotching between questions without ever affording any the time to truly wring dry. Which is to say: the film is hectic because it fails to cohere, not because it turns incoherence into its own aesthetic with a distinctly modernist conviction.
Part of the tension is that the deliciously tactless escape from bourgeois control Bird celebrates in his films is of course predicated on an extreme aesthetic perfectionism: even in his flights of fancy, Bird’s vision of impulsive, shambolic emancipation is heavily storyboarded and rigorously controlled with the monomania of a dictator. Which means, like the technology the film is not actually especially skeptical of, it’s thoroughly mediated and never as impulsive as it pretends to be. While everything in the script does feel rehearsed, consciously manicured to cultivate pleasure in the moment, it’s comparatively reckless aesthetics don’t match the harebrained heights of, say, Inside Out at its most feverishly unrestrained.
Great storyboarding has its phenomenal pleasures though, and it also rhymes with the characters’ need to control themselves and sculpt their inhibitions within some social conventions, superpowers or no. But the deeper questions are ethical as well as aesthetic in nature. The original Incredibles at times hid its obvious individualist bias – and Objectivist slant – with the sheer brio of its energy, riding the coattails of an emancipated spirit unrestrained by the demarcations of the normal, while, of course, tapping into a liberated spirit of personal freedom from social mores that anyone, in theory, could relate to. But this new film, as if beholden to a self-conscious urge to complicate itself, reveals Bird’s sketchier eye for dialogue and narrative structure than cotton-candy visual aplomb. Turning the impish and the devious into the sacrosanct and the inviolable, the film piles on concerns – gender equality, the perils of populist technology, corporate benefactors, family cohesion – without having anything to say about any of them, each handled as a matter of pro forma consideration rather than, seemingly, because the film is truly interested in them. At times, it feels as though the film is trying on liberal social themes to strive for untouchable status, as if prematurely fending off the naysayers who lambasted the original film for its Randian libertarianism.
In fact, this new film’s liberalism and more overt courting of social issues only exacerbate how circumspect Bird’s attitude toward modern day society really is, how incompatible with genuine social justice his moral perspective can be. A potential in-road to progressivism is found in the narrative hook: Elastigirl’s renewed superhero success at the ostensible expense of her husband, who has to sacrifice the spotlight and spend time as a stay at home dad learning the trials and tribulations of a very humdrum and un-championed workday. But whatever goodwill the film builds up is drowned out by the also-ran material related to the brother-sister pair – Winston (Bob Odenkirk) and Evelyn (Catherine Keener) – who call on Elastigirl in the first place. Add in Violet’s concerns about a new boyfriend and Jack-Jack’s budding powers (he apparently has every power in the books, and many which could rip the book to pieces) and Incredibles 2 is either too-busy by half or not complicated enough. Bird’s individualism inclines toward centralization; he isn’t a democratic storyteller by nature, and his attempts at spreading the wealth around feel shoe-horned in.
Rather than the simple elegance of a universal dream, Incredibles 2 clearly feels the need to participate in modern society. Which is, generally, for the best in a film, but Bird’s passions are still feverishly individualistic, which means nothing coheres, except insofar as they reveal political leaning Pixar can’t but endorse but would probably prefer to not be noticed. In the face of the usual liberal patina of egalitarianism of opportunity and bootstrap individualism – the ability of every person to succeed – Bird’s Incredibles films scrub away the mask and expose the inequality at the heart of mainstream cinematic philosophies: the assumption, implicitly shared by conservatives and liberals alike, that certain people are inherently more competent than others, that a hierarchy of competence undergirds any hierarchy of power and thereby circumscribes any serious will toward social rights and equality of outcome in society. While comic books in the ‘60s and ‘70s were often seen as leftist odes to civil rights – and hopeful utopias of possibility – Bird’s Incredibles are conservative laments for the halcyon days where, in this worldview, some families simply were better than others, where good-breeding, and in the case of young Jack-Jack, good genes elevate certain strands of the population above others. The misguided conservatism is frankly refreshing in the face of the anti-radicalism that, say, Black Panther hawks as sham-progressivism, but it’s still dubious as morality and, for that matter, ineffective as drama.