Fourteen long years have passed since the animated superhero comedy The Incredibles burst, like Superman, into theaters. But when fans of the hit Pixar film sit down to the new sequel - about a family of suburban crime-fighters who must hide their X-Men-like abilities from a world that has outlawed "supers" - 2004 may feel like only yesterday. The delightfully restorative Incredibles 2 picks up precisely where the first film - which ended with a tantalizing cliffhanger - left off, with the arrival of a new villain, the Underminer, who arose from the earth in a giant tunnel-boring machine.
The first film ended with a knowing glance - between the costumed crusader Mr. Incredible (voice of Craig T. Nelson), his wife, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), and their three kids - as well as a question: Would they continue to fight against those who would undermine truth, justice and the American way, or would they, in their own way, go back underground?
Incredibles 2 immediately sets about answering that question, in a way that will surprise no one, except to the degree that it incorporates currents in contemporary American culture - both in movies and in the news - that have developed in the intervening years. When Mr. Incredible, a.k.a. Bob Parr, shouts that he'll try to keep the Underminer's vehicle "away from the buildings," it's hard not think of the casual destruction that is countenanced by so many of today's action-movie franchises, for which collateral damage seems almost to have become a smirking, inside joke. And when a team of brother-and-sister PR strategists (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener) show up to offer help rehabilitating the lawless image of superheroes, they outfit Elastigirl with a police-style body camera, the better to document the true nature of her good works.
Such au courant elements, coupled with the introduction of the film's true villain - a mysterious entity called the Screenslaver, who turns his victims into mindless automatons, via the mesmerizing power of computer screens - lend Incredibles 2 just a whiff of topicality. The franchise has always been characterized by a kind of timelessness, underscored by a retro-futuristic production design that references, all at once, midcentury modernism, the gadget-rich future and the present. High-tech suits and Batmanesque accessories blend fluidly with antique-looking television sets that broadcast the mid-1960s cartoon adventure series Jonny Quest.
Somehow these various influences all work, propelled by Michael Giacchino's James Bond-ian score, in returning writer-director Brad Bird's witty, engrossing and visually stunning adventure. There are several flawlessly rendered action set pieces, including one in which Elastigirl - straddling an electric motorcycle that pops apart into two pieces, held together only by her rubbery torso - races to save a runaway monorail train. But none is more arresting than the hand-to-hand combat between the heroine and Screenslaver in his darkened lair, which appears to be lit by a garish strobe light.
Speaking of fights, much of the film's comedy comes courtesy of Bob and Helen's youngest child, the toddler Jack-Jack, who in this installment reveals himself to possess several new powers, all of which come to the fore in a scene in which he does hilarious battle with a backyard raccoon. Meanwhile, the family's other children, Violet (Sarah Vowell) and Dash (Huck Milner, replacing Spencer Fox), spend their time contending with adversaries of their own: Teenage boys and math, respectively.
Perhaps most intriguingly, Incredibles 2 is both pop-culture eye candy and a sly critique of it - albeit one delivered in the form of the bad guy, who rails against the mediation of screens as a poor substitute for unfiltered life experience. I don't need to tell you who wins here, but it's refreshing to see a movie sequel that can question its own existence, even as it revels in it. (A movie theater marquee advertises Dementia 113 in the background of one shot, a sight gag that evokes the kind of throwaway joke you might see on The Simpsons, for which Bird once worked.)
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Four stars. Rated PG. Contains action sequences and some brief mild language. 118 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.
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