TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Fourteen years after "The Incredibles" became a box office smash and won the Oscar for best animated feature, Disney and Pixar have produced a sequel that continues the super heroic adventures of Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl and their three gifted children. "Incredibles 2" reunites the first film's writer-director Brad Bird with a cast led by Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson and Samuel L. Jackson. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Given Pixar's mixed record in the sequel department, I wasn't convinced we needed a follow up to "The Incredibles." Brad Bird's ingenious 2004 animated comedy remains one of the studio's peak achievements - a brilliant action movie, a cheeky explosion of '60s design motifs and a deeply moving portrait of an American family coming together and becoming more than the sum of its extraordinary parts. The good news is that while "Incredibles 2" may not top the original, it broadens the material and deepens the characters in ways that are by turns expected and surprising and always deliriously entertaining.
Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter once again lead the terrific voice cast as Bob and Helen Parr aka Mr. Incredible, he of the superhuman physique and Elastigirl, she of the stretchable limbs. Also back for more are Frozone, who's voiced by Samuel L. Jackson and can shoot ice from his fingertips, and Edna Mode, the diminutive fashion goddess who designs state-of-the-art superhero couture. She's voiced again hilariously by Bird himself.
Despite the 14 intervening years, the new movie picks up right where the first one left off, with Bob and Helen confronting the Underminer, a drilling villain who threatens to destroy their city. Longing to join the fight are their moody teenage daughter Violet with her powerful purple force fields and their raucous adolescent son Dash with his ridiculously speedy legs. But their parents insist that they stay out of harm's way and look after their adorable baby brother Jack-Jack.
The mission doesn't go well. The bad guy escapes. The property damage is enormous. And the tide of public opinion remains firmly set against the Incredibles and their fellow superheroes, whose powers were outlawed in the first movie. Suddenly homeless and unemployed, Bob and Helen hole up in a motel and try to figure out what to do next. But a glorious second chance arrives, courtesy of two sibling entrepreneurs, sharply voiced by Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener. They want to make Elastigirl the face of a media campaign that will show the public all the good that superheroes do. The perks are immediate - a fancy new house for the family and a spiffy motorcycle for Elastigirl.
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HOLLY HUNTER: (As Helen Parr) A new Elasticycle.
CRAIG T NELSON: (As Bob Parr) Elasticycle? I didn't know you had a bike.
HUNTER: (As Helen Parr) Hey, I had a mohawk. There's a lot about me you don't know.
NELSON: (As Bob Parr) Yeah, but - a mohawk?
HUNTER: (As Helen Parr) You didn't miss anything.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPS)
HUNTER: (As Helen Parr) Oh, yeah. This one's electric.
NELSON: (As Bob Parr) What's that mean?
(SOUNDBITE OF WHIRRING)
HUNTER: (As Helen Parr) Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLAM)
HUNTER: (As Helen Parr) Oh. Means it's torque-y (ph). I'll get the hang of it.
NELSON: (As Bob Parr) You will be great.
HUNTER: (As Helen Parr) I will be great. And you will, too.
NELSON: (As Bob Parr) We will both be great.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)
HUNTER: (As Helen Parr) Bye, sweetie.
CHANG: With Helen off completing dangerous rescue missions and becoming a media sensation, it's up to Bob to stay home and watch the kids, especially the scene-stealing Jack-Jack, whose own powers are starting to reveal themselves. Even though my own toddler has never fired laser beams from her eyes or randomly teleported into another dimension. I can attest that "Incredibles 2" is one of the most ruthlessly accurate portraits of the toll of parenthood I've ever seen in animation or live action.
Bird may be a dazzling pop satirist, but he's an emotional realist at heart. The movie's spectacular climax may be a touch overextended, but Bird remains a peerless director of fluid, inventive action, and his feel for the dynamics of group combat put the "Avengers" movies to shame. As ever, he isn't afraid to ground his fantastical vision in real-world ideas. There are sidelong references to the dangers of screen addiction, the use of body cameras by law enforcement, the role of marketing in driving social change and the rise of the female breadwinner in a country striving for gender parity. Holly Hunter didn't get the recognition she deserved for "The Big Sick" last year, and here, she gives another powerhouse portrait of motherhood at its most resilient.
I've never bought the fashionable dismissals of the first "Incredibles" as an Ayn Randian parable about defying middle-class mediocrity and harnessing one's innately superior traits. It's a reading that ignores the movie's passionate defense of creativity, humility and public service. Bird has firmly denied any Rand connection or influence, and there are scenes and subplots in the sequel in which you can sense him determinedly setting the record straight.
But if that makes "Incredibles 2" sound heavy, the movie is so gorgeous, and fleet, and funny and touching that it never loses the thread of the story. It keeps zipping between domestic comedy and death-defying action without sacrificing dramatic stakes or emotional momentum. One minute, Helen is risking life and rubbery limb to save a runaway monorail. The next, Bob is trying to talk Violet through some angst involving a boy at school. Bird doesn't distinguish between big moments and small moments. Everything here matters. Like some of the best Pixar movies, from "Inside Out" to the "Toy Story" trilogy, "Incredibles 2" knows that everyday life remains the grandest adventure of all.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with writer-director Paul Schrader and actor Ethan Hawke about their new film "First Reformed," or with Howard Bryant about his book "The Heritage" about black athletes and social protests from Jackie Robinson to today, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.