Innocuous animation like Brad Bird’s Incredibles 2 can still be politically contrived. This sci-fi cartoon sequel presents a nuclear family, the Parrs, who all possess superpowers and alter-egos. Dad Bob (Mr. Incredible, voiced by Craig T. Nelson), mom Helen (Elastigirl, voiced by Holly Hunter), plus their 2.5 kids (an adolescent, a preteen, and an infant) are half-satirical, white, all-American figures whose middle-class lives are sprinkled with political jokes about mom and dad switching social and domestic roles.
These gags are pandering more than charming; they trade on trendy political attitudes to make the formulaic concept seem up-to-date. The most desperate gag is the most elaborate: the plot development that contrasts the sentimentalized Parr family with a pair of crazily ambitious and insecure siblings, entrepreneur Winston Deavor and his techno-genius sister Evelyn (voiced by Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener), who oppose a government edict outlawing superheroic acts. The Deavors deviously maneuver to minimize the superheroes’ individuality and ultimately gain social control; they’re stock anti-libertarians.
The battling families (and their eccentric friends and allies) alternately resemble either X-Men or the Avengers.
Elastigirl Helen worries, “Chaos is what we have today! To help my family, I got to leave it? To fix the law, I have to break it?” She sounds too much like a member of the #Resistance. (Hunter’s voice is shrill, lacking that affecting twang when she memorably warned Lex Luthor, in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, “I grew up on a farm; I know how to wrestle a pig.”) But when Mr. Incredible Bob turns into Mr. Mom and encourages Elastigirl’s resistance — saying, “You’ve got to, so our kids can have that choice” — he induces the same liberal-political queasiness as Isle of Dogs.
Evoking Millennial chaos doesn’t improve Incredibles 2 but, regrettably, makes it more like Marvel Comics cynicism. This second go-round can’t avoid creeping Marvelism. The battling families (and their eccentric friends and allies) alternately resemble either X-Men or the Avengers. The comic-book nature of their social outlawry reduces Zack Snyder’s profound issues of faith and the supernatural into the typical Marvel mess of jokey, anti-mythological ultra-cynicism.
Cartoon fun becomes mindless here, even though Bird once again indulges his fine-tuned taste for kinetic puns and his nostalgia for antique movie and graphic styles. Images of the Incredibles flying, racing, bouncing, and stretching across the public spaces of their town Municiberg, displaying their gifts at home or in sinister impersonal places, all have a Boomer-generation patina — the polished surfaces and sleek angles of both the 1939 and 1964 New York World’s Fairs. (And the music score frequently evokes the James Bond theme.) Through this doubled-up sophistication of the once modern and the more-modern, Bird imaginatively makes retro also work as quasi-futuristic. Note how the wonder attached to the invention of television — the screen as a window into other worlds — is repeated in this film’s dread attached to the invention of Evelyn Deavor’s Silicon Valley–era devices, The Screenslaver and virtual-reality masks that brainwash those who wear them.
Such time-traveling, culture-mixing whimsy first distinguished Bird’s animation sensibility in his marvelous 1999 film, The Iron Giant. That year, I had proposed that the New York Film Critics Circle begin its annual Best Animated Film prize in hopes of honoring The Iron Giant. Alas, the final vote favored the snarky, cynical South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut instead. Since then, quasi-political cleverness has ruined much recent animation. Bird’s own clever screenwriting in Incredibles 2 doesn’t adequately match the emotional resonance of his visual caprices. His recent venture into live-action with Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol contained action sequences of toylike, Buster Keatonesque hyperbole, yet the cautionary tale Tomorrowland was disastrous and messagey. Incredibles 2 has Tomorrowland’s political problem.
But Bird isn’t a new Frank Tashlin, using animation’s cartoonish, hyperbolic style to exaggerate human capability and express recognizable feelings. Hollywood’s current political conformity prevents that kind of unruly surrealism, which has proven to be the essence of great animation. Even Bird’s most audacious contrivance, the infant Jack-Jack, whose incredi-bilities pop out instinctively and uncontrollably, just seems gimmicky, as if imitating Seth MacFarlane’s Stewie, the id-baby on TV’s Family Guy. For a brief instant, when Jack-Jack bursts into a personification of the Brian Eno song “Baby’s on Fire,” Incredibles 2 goes beyond anything Pixar has previously dared. The self-immolating Jack-Jack symbolizes a Millennial baby.
Bernard and Huey are a Jules Feiffer cartoon family, but this film, directed by Dan Mirvish, is far from Brad Bird’s escapism. The title characters’ conversations and confrontations are split between their 1980s college past (where studly cad Huey is played by Jake O’Connor and bookish Bernard by Jay Renshaw) and their middle-aged present (in which forlorn Huey is played by David Koechner, and newly rapacious Bernard is played by Jim Rash). The satirical, generational contrasts catch fire when Bernard begins an affair with Huey’s daughter, Zelda (Mae Whitman). Each person’s young or aged political assumptions, personal loyalties, and affections are tested.
The film’s revelations recall Feiffer’s Village Voice comic strip (1956–97) that confessed and challenged shibboleths of the Old and New Left through pared-down duologues and monologues. In Bernard and Huey, Feiffer’s shtick revives the self-examination that liberals now refuse. This causes an ideological shudder between Mirvish’s time shifts. He copies the brilliant black-out structure of Feiffer’s script for Carnal Knowledge (easily director Mike Nichols’ best film), but even Feiffer eventually goes soft on all the characters except for Nancy Travis as Mona, Huey’s old flame, who gives in to rekindled lust. Her ambivalence and chagrin and hypocrisy provide honest self-examination that the Left now abhors, a family trait that Feiffer at least remembers.