Parenting is hard. Teen daughters suddenly become interested in dating and then refuse to talk to you about it, while young sons just want to get into trouble. There’s endless cooking (even though you’re somehow always short on eggs), cleaning, laundry, and searching for batteries, only to discover that you’ve bought the wrong ones. Infants don’t sleep, and get into everything when your back is turned, which leaves you constantly harried and exhausted to the point of wanting to lash out at everyone around you. Then, to top it all off, you often have to handle these chores and dilemmas alone, stuck in a homemaker existence while your spouse is off realizing their—and perhaps also your—dream.
And that’s not even taking into account having to deal with a tyke’s habit of walking through walls, teleporting to alternate dimensions, and transforming into a fiery demon.
Okay, that last facet of raising kids may only be an issue for the Parrs, who after a 14-year hiatus return to theaters this Friday (June 15) in Incredibles 2. Nonetheless, the cheeky fun of Brad Bird’s long-anticipated Pixar sequel is that, like its predecessor, it casts raising a family as the ultimate heroic vocation—and, by extension, saving the world as just another form of surrogate parenting. After all, what’s a little crime-fighting for a mom or dad that have already proven themselves up to the challenge of deciphering New Math—a scourge as evil as any homicidal lunatic or world domination-craving madman?
Incredibles 2 picks up where the 2004 original left off, with the Parrs—mother Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), father Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), son Dash (Huck Milner), and tot Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile)—saving a metropolis from bank-robbing baddie The Underminer (John Ratzenberger). Or, at least, trying to, as their Herculean efforts wind up being in vain, with the villain escaping with the loot and the city left in shambles. That’s a problem exacerbated by the fact that, for the past fifteen years, Supers (as these extraordinary individuals are called) have been illegal, and the Parrs’ vigilantism, for all its noble intentions, is thus seriously frowned upon by the powers-that-be.
With their profession outlawed, their reputation in tatters and their home in ruins, the clan is anything but content in the aftermath of their latest outing, leading to yet another argument between Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible about the justness of doing what you know is right when society deems it wrong. Their fortunes take a 180-degree turn when telecommunications titan Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) recruits them—via Mr. Incredible’s longtime best friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson)—to be a part of a carefully-orchestrated campaign to turn public opinion around on the issue of Supers prohibition. By having them wear body-cams to record their every amazing feat (hello, current events!), Deavor—a superhero fanatic whose father was killed by intruders after he couldn’t call his own incredible pals for help—believes he can change the world for the better. To the Parrs, who also get to move into one of the mogul’s many luxury mansions, the offer is a win-win.
Except, that is, for Mr. Incredible, as Deavor and his techie sister Evelyn (Catherine Deever) believe their operation will be most successful with Elastigirl as its poster child, which leaves dad to stay at home with the brood while mom gets to have all the fun. Via this conventional role reversal, Incredibles 2 embraces a modern feminist streak, championing women’s ability to thrive in the workplace no matter the insecure chauvinism of the men they leave behind to tackle day-to-day household chores. At the same time, it celebrates men’s fatherly instincts, which may start off a bit rough-around-the-edges, but are up to any domestic challenge, as Mr. Incredible proves in helping Dash with his homework, Violet with her love life, and Jack-Jack with his volatile condition: flip-flopping between various superpowers, which come to the fore in a hilarious showdown with a neighborhood raccoon.
Incredibles 2’s conflation of parenthood and superheroism extends to its antagonist, the Screenslaver (Bill Wise), who hypnotizes his victims through visual electronic devices. Portraying television and smartphones as the biggest threats to the nuclear unit’s (and society’s) health and stability is a clever twist, and Bird shrewdly doesn’t overplay it, instead letting it naturally coexist alongside other amusingly relatable bits. Those are highlighted by a scene in which Mr. Incredible takes Violet to the restaurant where the boy she likes—Tony (Michael Bird), whose mind has been wiped by government handler Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks)—is working, much to her water-out-the-nose surprise. Better still is Mr. Incredible’s late-night trip to see fashion designer extraordinaire Edna Mode (Bird), who’s disgusted by the fact that her beloved former clients are now wearing someone else’s outfits, and yet gets over her unhappiness once she gets the opportunity to babysit the superpower-roulette-wheel that is Jack-Jack.
Bird crafts and stages such moments with good-humored verbal and visual punchiness—and, as in a bifurcated-motorcycle chase, choreographic electricity—albeit with a fleetness that sometimes threatens to render key elements insubstantial (namely, a group of Supers who idolize Elastigirl, and who eventually become ensnared in the Screenslaver’s malevolent plot). Still, the writer/director’s pacing keeps things light and lively, which goes a long way toward distracting attention from the fact that the story’s core dynamics are pretty similar to those found in the first film.
Incredibles 2’s stellar voice cast is led by the magnificent duo of Hunter and Nelson, whose bickering—she firm and prickly with a southern twang, he weary and cocky in a gruff baritone—is charmingly authentic. Moreover, its CGI animation is a skyscraper-sized leap forward from the series’ maiden installment, boasting vibrant hues and rounded patterns that bring the film’s ‘50s-by-way-of-the-21st-century style to candy-colored cartoon life. Though his tale’s central conflict is somewhat lacking in suspense or mystery, Bird continues to develop Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack into unique comedic personalities who embody the worst (uncontrollable and unpredictable) and best (loyal and loving) aspects of adolescence and infancy. It’s as accurate and nuanced a portrait of parenthood and childhood that one’s apt to see in a mainstream blockbuster. The fact that it’s also a rollicking and aesthetically eye-catching adventure is simply a super bonus.