Incredibles 2 (2018)

2018 #233
Brad Bird | 118 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Incredibles 2

Brad Bird — the director behind The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, and not letting them release the IMAX version of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol on Blu-ray (I will never be over that) — returns to the movie that made his name with what must be Pixar’s most-requested (probably “only requested”, actually) sequel, Incredibles 2.

It’s been 14 years for us viewers since the last Parr family adventure, but in-universe it’s been no time at all — literally, as Incredibles 2 picks up by recapping the closing moments of The Incredibles, which saw the eponymous family of superheroes about to face off against villain The Underminer. That confrontation goes disastrously awry, landing the family in a whole heap of trouble; but it also attracts the attention of media mogul Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who believes superheroes should be made legal again. Recruiting parents Bob and Helen Parr — aka Mr Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) — and their friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) to his cause, the first step in Deavor’s public relations plan revolves around public crimefighting appearances by Elastigirl… alone. This leaves Bob holding the baby, literally, as he’s stuck at home with the kids while his wife gets to have all the fun.

At its most basic, Incredibles 2 is a gender-reversed do-over of the first movie… to a fault, in fact. The closing moments of the first film suggest a “family of superheroes” future for the Parrs, with them battling crime together. The sequel immediately works to put everything back in its place: the kids aren’t allowed to use their powers (until they must for the climax, natch); one of the parents gets to go off and be a superhero, while the other has to stay at home. The difference is it’s the man staying at home, and where Helen was consummate at looking after the kids, Bob finds it a challenge — because Men, amirite?

Left holding the baby... literally

Part of what made The Incredibles so successful as a movie was it mixed a plausible family dynamic in with the superhero capers, but here that home life aspect is what holds the film back, because Bob’s struggles with the kids are 66.6% cliché. His son struggles with homework, and Bob doesn’t know how to do it either! His daughter has boyfriend problems! The 33.3% that works comes courtesy of baby Jack-Jack, who is beginning to develop powers — plural. As the middle of the film drags on, becoming a bit “we get the point!” with Bob’s familial woes, the bright spot is continually Jack-Jack’s humorous madcap antics.

Mind you, the actual storyline in the superhero section isn’t much better. It revolves around the hunt for a mysterious villain, which naturally ends in a twist reveal… but as their true identity is pretty obvious as soon as they first appear earlier on, that reveal is a long time coming. Depending how critical you want to be, this part of the movie also has a lot of thematic points that seem to peter out or had nowhere to go in the first place. Is the film trying to say something about our addiction to screens and media? About the merits of vigilantism over bureaucracy? The dangers of being reliant on ‘higher powers’ to look after us? It touches on these things, and more, but they’re only given passing reference. Okay, yes, when you boil it down this is “just” a kids’ action-adventure movie and maybe we shouldn’t expect too much depth of thought… but Pixar are always hailed as being much more than that. Is it too much to expect that, if they’re going to introduce a topic or perspective, they’ll also at least close it out somehow?

Yet for all these story woes, Incredibles 2 does indeed work as a colourful action-adventure movie; gloriously so. The action sequences are absolutely thrilling, beautifully choreographed and constructed. They’re even better in 3D, too — Elastigirl’s stretchy powers seem to have been made for the format. And while the middle of the film may refuse to pay off the “family of superheroes” thing, the opening sequence and climax let them all in on the action, and it’s all the better for it.

Stretchy superheroics

What made The Incredibles one of Pixar’s best films, and one of the best films in the whole superhero genre, was the way it combined the action and adventure with family dynamics and concerns, seamlessly marrying the two. The sequel lacks the clarity and connectedness that first movie boasted, working very well as a fun superhero action movie but struggling as a family comedy-drama. It’s still an entertaining time (the sometimes-slow mid-section aside), but it’s not the genre and studio standout that the first film was.

4 out of 5

Incredibles 2 was released on DVD and Blu-ray (2D & 3D, but no 4K) in the UK this week.

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The Incredibles (2004)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #44

Expect the incredible.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 115 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 5th November 2004 (USA)
UK Release: 26th November 2004
First Seen: DVD, 2005

Stars
Craig T. Nelson (Poltergeist, Action Jackson)
Holly Hunter (Raising Arizona, The Piano)
Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction, Snakes on a Plane)
Jason Lee (Mallrats, Alvin and the Chipmunks)

Director
Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol)

Screenwriter
Brad Bird (*batteries not included, Ratatouille)
(I bet you could count on one hand the number of Western animated movies written by one person.)

The Story
After public opinion forced superheroes into a civilian relocation programme, Bob and Helen Parr — formerly Mr Incredible and Elastigirl — live a quiet domestic life with their three children. Bob is dissatisfied, however, and easily tempted back to heroic ways by a call to defeat an evil robot. When it emerges this is part of a plan to kill retired superheroes and give powers to everyone in the world, Bob’s wife and superpowered kids must enter the fray to save the world.

Our Heroes
The fantastic four titular heroes: Bob Parr, aka Mr Incredible, who has super strength and limited invulnerability; his wife Helen, aka Elastigirl, who can stretch her body like rubber; their daughter Violet, who can become invisible and generate a force shield; and her younger brother Dash, who has super-speed (name/power coincidencetastic!) There’s also their chum Lucius Best, aka Frozone, who can form ice from the air. He’s very cool, hence casting Samuel L. Jackson.

Our Villain
Disillusioned superhero fanboy Buddy Pine, who grew up and used technology to give himself powers, dubbing himself Syndrome. Wants to give everyone in the world powers, because when everyone’s super, no one will be.

Best Supporting Character
Fashion designer Edna Mode, who makes the superheroes’ costumes. Inspired by Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, Bird wanted Lily Tomlin to voice her, and provided an example of how she should sound. Tomlin thought it was perfect, so she instead persuaded Bird to play the role himself.

Memorable Quote
“No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved! You know, for a little bit? I feel like the maid — ‘I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for ten minutes?!’” — Mr. Incredible

Memorable Scene
After tearing his old costume, Bob visits Edna for a new one. He wants a cape. Cue montage of why capes are a bad idea.

Technical Wizardry
The film presented a whole host of new technical challenges for Pixar, not least fully animating a whole cast of humans for the first time — they had to develop new technology to animate detailed anatomy, clothing, skin, and hair. The latter was a particular challenge. On Monsters, Inc., the animators persuaded director Pete Docter to give Boo pigtails to make her hair easier to animate, but Brad Bird accepted no such compromises, particularly as Violet’s long, face-covering hair was integral to her character — and it had to be depicted underwater and blowing in the wind, too. Ultimately, Violet’s hair was only successfully animated toward the end of production.

Next time…
One of the few Pixar sequels people actually wanted, The Incredibles 2 is in development for a 2019 release. That’s only a 15-year wait.

Awards
2 Oscars (Animated Film, Sound Editing)
2 Oscar nominations (Original Screenplay, Sound Mixing)
1 BAFTA Children’s Award (Best Film)
10 Annie Awards (Feature, Directing, Writing, Voice Acting (Brad Bird), Music, Production Design, Animated Effects, Character Animation, Character Design, Storyboarding)
6 Annie nominations (Voice Acting (Samuel L. Jackson), Character Animation (again, x3), Character Design (again), Storyboarding (again))
1 Saturn Award (Animated Film)
2 Saturn nominations (Writer, Music)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

What the Critics Said
“what really makes The Incredibles work is the wit of Bird [though] much of it will be over the heads of very young viewers who account for so much repeat business. Bird’s satiric take on suburbia, conformity and forced notions of equality is surprisingly sophisticated and biting for an animated feature, matched by a visual panache that is often breathtaking.” — Kevin Lally, Film Journal International

Score: 97%

What the Public Say
“Most Disney films are about people meeting and falling in love. Incredibles is one of the only ones I can think of about how important marriage is. It shows a couple fighting, getting along, and working together.” — Rachel Wagner, Reviewing All 54 Disney Animated Films and More!

Verdict

Even before the present glut of big-screen super-heroics, Pixar were in on the game with this affectionate genre entry. Writer-director Brad Bird mixes together classical superhero antics with elements of 1960s spy-fi to create a retro world of optimistic heroics and larger-than-life villainy — at odds with the dark-and-serious tone of so many superhero movies of the past 17+ years, but all the more memorable for it. It’s also great at the kinds of things Pixar is known for. The combination means it transcends both the kids’ animation and superhero subgenres.

#45 will be… keeping up with the Joneses.

The Iron Giant (1999)

2016 #86
Brad Bird | 83 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U / PG

Adapted (loosely) from Ted Hughes’ children’s novel The Iron Man, the feature debut of director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, now live-action stuff) relocates the book’s story to ’50s America and mixes in some Cold War elements. The film was somewhat verboten in our household when it came out, because the book was beloved and the film looked so different, but its reputation has only grown in the ensuing decade-and-a-half — and Hughes approved of it anyway.

This version sees the titular robot (voiced by Vin Diesel) crash to Earth near Maine in late 1957, the home of nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) and his mom Annie (Jennifer Aniston). After the giant eats the Hughes’ TV aerial, Hogarth tracks it to take a photo, and ends up saving it from electrocution when it tries to eat a power station. As the giant sneaks around the countryside eating cars and causing train crashes, it attracts the attention of government agent Fox Mulder from the FBI’s X Files Kent Mansley from the Bureau of Unexplained Phenomena (Christopher McDonald), who’s intent on uncovering and destroying the giant. Hogarth tries to hide the friendly creature with the help of artist Dean (Harry Connick Jr.), but could it be Mansley isn’t so wrong about the threat it poses?

The story, as reconstructed by Bird and screenwriter Tim McCanlies, integrates influences from ’50s B-movies (very apt for a giant robot ‘monster’) and Cold War/Space Race paranoia for a potent storyline that has a different emphasis from the novel’s “world peace” finale, but nonetheless is promoting understanding of alien/foreign powers and, y’know, deep stuff like that. Alternatively — or, rather, concurrently — it’s an E.T.-esque tale of a boy and his quirky alien friend. Bird was keen to emphasise character over action and mindless spectacle, and that’s really where the film’s strengths lie.

Well, that and the technical aspects. The animation is stunningly well done, exhibiting exceptional fluidity and detail in its character animation, in particular. That’s in spite of the film having a reduced budget and time schedule thanks to the box office failure of previous animations by the studio — in Bird’s words, they had “one-third of the money of a Disney or DreamWorks film, and half of the production schedule”, but that meant greater production freedom (so long as they managed that budget). I guess that’s why the film’s ended up only growing in stature since its first release — because it’s able to be committed to its creators’ vision, rather than being battered into homogeneity by a studio desperate for a return on considerable investment.

Beautifully animated and affectingly told, with a style that nicely homages classic sci-fi movies, The Iron Giant is a film that deserves the reputation it has gradually amassed — and which only continues to grow, I think. Last year saw the release of an extended Signature Edition, with a couple of short scenes added, which comes to US Blu-ray (alongside the original version) later this year. Just from reading about those new scenes, I’m not convinced they’ll improve the experience, but it’ll certainly be worth finding out.

5 out of 5

The Iron Giant was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

This review is also part of 1999 Week.

Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (2015)

aka: just Tomorrowland

2015 #187
Brad Bird | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.20:1 | USA & Spain / English | 12 / PG

TomorrowlandAfter making his live-action directorial debut with the unlikely sidestep of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Pixar alumni Brad Bird heads back in a familiar family-friendly direction for this Disney sci-fi action-adventure. One of several movies lambasted by critics this past summer, I actually thought it was a lot of fun.

The story concerns a future city created by scientists and dreamers; a place of wonder and innovation not constrained by the short-term goals of politicians or moneymen. Boy inventor Frank is delighted to be invited along there by recruiter Athena (Raffey Cassidy); years later, teenager Casey (Britt Robertson) receives similar treatment… only it turns out something is wrong, and Casey and Athena must track down a grizzled and disillusioned Frank (George Clooney) so they can head back to Tomorrowland and convince its leader (Hugh Laurie) of the way to make things right.

Something along those lines, anyway, because Tomorrowland’s storytelling can get a little muddled. It doesn’t quite conform to your usual action-adventure narrative shape — we spend quite a long time with boy-Frank, before the story essentially restarts with Casey, and eventually those two threads join up. The thing this makes me wonder is, is the storytelling actually muddled (this is not an uncommon criticism of the film), or does it just take an atypical shape, with the consequent lack of comforting familiarity making us think it’s poorly done? A counterargument might be that it helps foster some of the film’s mysteries, which might be reveals without setup if you restructured. I think if you just go along with it, the only real bump is in that restart; otherwise, it’s a pretty smooth action-adventure.

And that’s why I don’t really understand the negative response to it. Sure, the plot may have the odd hole, but there are worse in better-regarded movies; Raffey Cassidy, a findand there’s a moral lesson that’s arguably a little heavy-handed, but as it’s a moral lesson some people aren’t bloody listening to, I can’t say I blame Bird for that. The characters and performances are likeable, with Raffey Cassidy standing out as a marvellous young find, though Laurie is a little undersold. There are some suitably entertaining action scenes, some moments of visual splendour thanks to the future city, and one long take that is exquisite. I know I’m a sucker for a long take, but this is a really exceptional one, that deserves to be mentioned alongside the year’s more-praised unbroken shot, the opening of Spectre.

It’s such a shame when original blockbusters like this get pissed all over by critics and an audience who are sometimes too keen to re-parrot critics’ opinions as if they’re their own (see also the Stateside response to Lone Ranger vs. how the rest of us received it). I’m not arguing movies should get a free pass just because they’re not adapted from something else, but really, when decent adventures like this get slated and consequently flop, what incentive do the studios have to try something new, when they know producing fifth Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean instalments will make shedloads whatever the reviews say?

For anyone who enjoys a good sci-fi action-adventure movie, I urge you to ignore the critics and give Tomorrowland a go. It’s not exactly a revelation, but it’s a fun time with more than a few points to commend it.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

2015 #15
Brad Bird | 133 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, UAE & Czech Republic / English | 12 / PG-13

Mission: Impossible - Ghost ProtocolWith Bond going “real world” and gadget-free in the Daniel Craig era, and the Bourne series having blazed a trail of “we shot it all handheld and shaky and grainy so it must be real” veracity, it seems the task of providing audiences with a contemporary version of the spy action, just-ahead-of-reality gadgets, and larger-than-life spectacle that the Bond movies specialised in during the ’60s and ’70s, has fallen upon the Mission: Impossible franchise. For my money, it’s taken the baton with aplomb.

This fourth instalment finds Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) having to enact the titular protocol when IMF are blamed for a terrorist attack and disbanded. What that means is going it alone with a small team of loyal compatriots — newcomers Brandt (Jeremy Renner), who harbours a secret, and Jane (Paula Patton), who’s cowed by a failure in her previous mission, as well as returnee Benji (Simon Pegg), upgraded from office-bound tech-head in the last film to field agent tech-head here. They have to find the chap who did do the bad thing, and stop him from doing something even worse. Naturally that means trotting around the globe, engaging in adrenaline-pumping action sequences, and, the franchise’s speciality, performing vertigo-inducing stunts. For real, because, you know, Tom Cruise is crazy.

Naturally, the latter is the film’s most memorable asset — there’s a reason the Burj Khalifa sequence, where Cruise scales the outside of the world’s tallest building using only some magic gripping gloves, was all over the trailers and the only image on most of the posters (apart from the one I’ve used…) There are several great action sequences, but that — and the chase through a sandstorm that follows soon after — are the best. SandstormySomewhat unfortunately for pacing, they come halfway through. The climax is a mano-a-mano fight in an automated car park. It’s good, but feels underwhelming by comparison, with Michael “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” Nyqvist’s middle-aged businessman villain never feeling like a credible physical threat to Cruise’s action hero. (Someone like the other Mikael Blomkvist, on the other hand, would’ve worked.)

This is a bit of a recurring theme with the Mission: Impossible films now, though. M:I-2 had numerous big sequences but ended with a knife fight on a beach, while the third one climaxed with a run around some houses. They worked in their own way — 2, in particular, because the rivalry between Hunt and the villain is so thoroughly built up throughout the film that their final face-off matters — but here the villain is underdeveloped, the threat he poses pitched as a broad “end of the world” type thing for most of the film rather than something specifically tied to one man, so the one-on-one showdown doesn’t feel earned.

Elsewhere, the film works in a nice subversion of another of the series’ stock-in-trades — namely the insanely good masks, which were so vital to the plots of the last two films. Possibly realising their effectiveness couldn’t be topped, or just fancying a change, here a situation is engineered where they must go without. It also means Cruise and co stay on screen as their characters, rather than having another actor embody them for what turns out to be a tense, key sequence. Bonus.

GadgetsThere’s a host of other gadgets to be going on with, though. It may be a side effect of having the writer-director of The Incredibles at the helm, but the stuff they’ve dreamt up here is pretty cool. Okay, the plausibility is dubious… but not everything has to be super-real, does it? Can’t we have some actiony spy fun? I think we can; and it can be done without needing to apply the excuse of “well, the film’s basically a comedy, isn’t it?” that other (enjoyable, in their own way) films of the past decade-ish have used. The tone is clear right from the pre-titles, which feature one of the film’s best gadgets (no spoilers!), so I think it sets out its stall early enough. You’re not going to think you’re watching a moderately strait-laced movie only for an invisible car to turn up halfway through, put it that way. If you’re not on-board after the opener… well, there are plenty of Bourne and Bourne-a-like films to go back to.

Another aspect that may have been brought by the Pixar alum is a nice vein of humour. Most of it comes courtesy of Pegg, unsurprisingly, though Cruise’s ability to be light and amusing is one of his lesser-praised, but very able, qualities. It doesn’t undermine the action (as it does in some of the Moore Bonds, for instance) but adds welcome tonal variety.

Not all of Brad Bird’s decisions are to my liking, though. Reportedly, 25 minutes of Ghost Protocol were shot on IMAX. That’s about 19% of the film. On Blu-ray, the amount of the film afforded a Dark Knight-style shifting-aspect-ratio IMAX treatment is a whopping 0%. This was on the orders of the director, but it’s a shame. No, IMAX footage on a TV is not the same as watching it in an IMAX theatre, but releases like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire have proven it can still have a strong impact. I bet the Burj bits in particular looked stunning, and it’s a shame we’re not allowed to enjoy them in a form closer to how they were shot. What are you up to? Just hanging outStill, that’s a fault of the home entertainment release, not the film itself. In all other respects, Bird’s work is first-rate. I like that the series consciously changes director with each new film to provide new ideas and voices, but if they were going to break the pattern then Bird would’ve been a good guy to allow back (certainly a superior pick than the third film’s J.J. Abrams, anyway, who was originally slated to tackle this sequel too).

I’ve always been a fan of the Mission: Impossible series — indeed, the oft-derided second one is among my long list of favourite films — but Ghost Protocol I particularly enjoyed. After a third entry that sometimes bordered on becoming formulaic or rote (saved primarily by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s villain), this feels like a breath of fresh air. I was even tempted to go for a full 5 stars, but there are some bits that push the cheesiness too far (mainly the final poorly-green-screened scene), and the villain is underdeveloped. Ultimately these are minor complaints; fleeting niggles in a spy actioner of the highest calibre.

4 out of 5

The fifth impossible mission, subtitled Rogue Nation, is in cinemas tomorrow.

Ghost Protocol placed 19th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

The Wraith of Cobble Hill (2005)

2009 #4a
Adam Parrish King | 15 mins | DVD

Animation isn’t a genre, it’s a medium, as Brad Bird would be so keen to tell you. As such, there’s no reason that any story shouldn’t be told in animated form… but sometimes, you have to wonder if it’s the best choice for the job.

The Wraith of Cobble HillThe Wraith of Cobble Hill is a perfect example for this debate as its modern, urban story seems to clash with the cartoonish style employed to bring it to the screen. There are no flights of fantasy, few implausible shots, nothing that couldn’t be achieved in live action even on a low budget. Ultimately the only reason for it being animated is, why shouldn’t it be? Personally, I’m not convinced it works; at the very least, it distracted me enough to consider it.

Otherwise, the story is a bit slow paced and perhaps uncertain of what it wants to say. By the end, ignoring the question of if the right form was chosen, I was unsure what it did say — what had actually happened, what had changed. Without giving away the ending, obviously rather a lot changes for one peripheral character, but for the central character it seems to have minimal impact. Well, he acquires a dog…

In short (sorry), The Wraith of Cobble Hill is nicely animated, though you might wonder why. More importantly, you might wonder what it was trying to say.

2 out of 5

This short is available on the Cinema16: American Short Films DVD.