Incredibles 2 faces a pair of Kryptonite-strength obstacles. First, it's a sequel, and sequels from Pixar, the standard bearer for originality in animation, tend to bend fans a wee bit out of shape. Then there's the altered state of the superhero landscape since the first Incredibles swooped down in 2004. "Supers," as they're called in the Incredibles universe, are now everywhere, and their franchises have grown increasingly self-aware and self-referential — two qualities the first film made its own.
Well, have no fear. Incredibles 2 may feel a little familiar, but it has too much wit, personality and sheer artistry to taste stale. It cleverly inverts some of the original's storylines, builds on the central themes and provides an all-you-can-eat buffet of eye candy. It's fast on its feet, even when middle child Dash isn't sprinting to the rescue. In short, it does what a sequel is supposed to do. It doesn't wear out its welcome.
Superheroes are facing a PR problem, much as they were after they wrecked New York at the end of The Avengers. They're actually illegal, which means Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Violet (Sarah Vowell) and Dash (Huck Milner) have been forced underground. They're lodging in a wonderfully detailed and seedy motel, living a less-than-super life. They kinda miss the glory days.
Then, opportunity knocks. A slick tycoon (Bob Odenkirk) and his tech-savvy sister (Catherine Keener) want to rehabilitate the superhero image, and they think Elastigirl is the perfect candidate to go out and do some heroic stuff for the world to see. Where Mr. Incredible sneaked out of the house in the first movie, this time it's his turn to be a house dad. He grows a 5 o'clock shadow, gets the kids ready for school, watches the baby, and seethes at his wife's starring role. Incredibles 2 deftly interweaves spousal and sibling rivalry, and even throws in some adolescent melodrama when Violet rages at her dad for messing with her dating life.
It spoils nothing to reveal that the family bonds when it's time to face off against a menace to society. (I could see the menace coming from a mile away, and I'm usually not very good at that sort of thing). Comfort-food films needn't be unpredictable. Heart, craft and smarts will do just fine.
And my, what craft. Director Brad Bird and his team have once again created a whooshing world that mixes art deco, pop art and German Expressionism. The film uses every inch of the frame; if your eyes don't find something to fix on at all times, you should probably have them checked.
As for the Pixar sequel question: Outside of the Cars franchise, they've been stellar. You could argue that the Toy Story movies have gotten better each time out. Finding Dory was no slouch. Original concepts are always appreciated, but if you're going to do a franchise, you might as well do it right.
One final note: Make sure you arrive in time to see the Pixar short, "Bao." Pixar's emotional potency works best in concentrated doses, as in the first few tissue-soaking minutes of Up. "Bao" has a similar impact. It reminds us that the Pixar pixie dust comes in portions of all sizes.