Can a movie have too many ideas? “Incredibles 2” lands in the summer multiplex season loaded for box-office bear and armed with a PowerPoint presentation about everything wrong with the world. The movie lectures us on our addiction to screens and the way we prefer cheap and easy over well-made and good. It debates the merits of inventing things versus selling those inventions and whether we should break bad laws or concentrate on making better ones.
Issues facing working moms and stay-at-home dads come under scrutiny. And the movie really has it in for our elected representatives, who, according to one randomline of dialogue, are trusted less by people than “monkeys throwing darts.”
You may be inclined to agree; plenty of days I do, too. But the line and the sentiment behind it are one more pick-up stick atop the rickety edifice that Brad Bird — Pixar’schief in-house auteur and the man behind “The Iron Giant” (1999), “Ratatouille” (2007), and the first “Incredibles” (2004) — has built from his many discontents.
“Incredibles 2” has some animated action sequences that are, for lack of a better word, incredible, and there are a good number of belly laughs, visual and conceptual. But the movie has a busy and hazily realized to-do list — only one item of which seems to be entertaining your children — and the result is a clattery, unfocused affair that at times is more irritating than fun.
Here’s the part where I confess that the original “The Incredibles” is probably my single favorite Pixar movie in a crowded field, so perhaps that’s why my disappointment is so keen. Inventively plotted and written, with a streamlined look that served as a witty/retro update on 1960s futuristic graphic design — think “The Jetsons” rendered with extra shadings — Bird’s first film as director for John Lasseter’s pioneering digital animation house remainsboth simple and wicked smart.
If there really were an Objectivist agenda at work, as some party-pooper critics have suggested then and now — an Ayn Rand-ian celebration of the Super-person at the expense of petty, punitive Normies — it was effectively buried under the film’s unbridled visual brio and family-first message. “The Incredibles” could be summed up by that one image of young Dash scampering across the surface of the ocean with a chortle of liberated glee.
“Incredibles 2” finds the Parr family — dad Bob/Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), mom Helen/ElastiGirl (Holly Hunter), mopey teen Violet (Sarah Vowell), rambunctious Dash (Huck Milner, subbing for the first film’s Spencer Fox), and baby Jack-Jack — still forced by anti-superhero law to keep their crime-fighting lights under a bushel. The nominal plot has a slick tech-billionaire, Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), offering the family a new chance; with his inventor sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener), he wants to make superheroes legal again by using body-cams to let the world see things from the perspective of our un-caped crusaders.
Because Mr. Incredible has a tendency to break things, Deavor puts Helen out there in a newly designed Elastigirl suit and an excellent ElastiCycle to rev through tunnels during the hair-raising rescue of a runaway MagLev train. While Bob wilts at home, struggling with Dash’s New Math, Violet’s love life, and a baby who refuses to go to bed, a new villain is revealed: the ScreenSlaver, whose ability to make any screen an “Outer Limits”-style hypno-wheel threatens to turn the entire populace into zombies.
Wait — is the ScreenSlaver for or against screens? It’s not really clear, and that’s only a part of what Bird puts on the buffet table in “Incredibles 2.” After a while the legs start to buckle. Is it a coincidence that the movie is part of those recent Pixar sequels that seem to have been ordered up by content rights-holder Disney (rather than organically coming from the brain trust, a la “Toy Story 2” and “3”)? Did Bird truly want to make this movie or did he just want to retain control of his work?
Regardless, the results feel under-inspired and much too over-thought, with the director’s many talking points spelled out in the dialogue rather than dramatized as story (the reverse was true in the first “Incredibles”). Will your kids like it? Sure, except for the bits where the characters literally sit around debating the issues instead of embodying them.
They and their parents will both enjoy the brief reappearance of Edna Mode, the pint-size couturier (voiced by Bird) who here is assigned the thankless task of baby-sitting Jack-Jack. And they’ll probably enjoy certain developments concerning the youngest Parr, even if those developments share the film’s hectic more-is-more overkill. At times, it seems that Bird is making “Incredibles” 2, 3 and 4, and just getting the whole thing over with.
The film’s third act is an encapsulation of its strengths and flaws, as the Parrs and best friend Lucius/Fro-Zone (Samuel L. Jackson) tackle an army of zombified super-heroes, some of whom are interesting, like Voyd (Sophia Bush), some of whom are not (Screech, Brick), and one of whom, Reflux, is just gross. The action that boomerangs from ground to air is exhilarating, and the way the fights weave in and out of Voyd’s interdimensional portals is both clever and funny. The movie seems to be finding its mojo.
At the same time, “Incredibles 2” never quite recovers from an antagonist with a muddled motive and an underwhelming presence, or from the character design that renders everyone but the heroes as unappetizing ‘60s-marionette bobbleheads. In the end, the feeling you may take with you as you leave the theater, despite the forced good cheer of the finale and Michael Giacchino’s airily mellifluous score, is one of disenchantment. What’s Brad Bird so angry about? To judge from this movie, everything at once and nothing in particular.
Written and directed by Brad Bird. With the voices of Craig T. Nelson. Holly Hunter, Sara Vowell, Huck Milner, Catherine Keener, Samuel L. Jackson. At Boston theaters, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX, Reading and Natick. 118 minutes. PG (action sequences, brief mild language)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.