It’s a vexation to many parents that a family movie often is little more than a surrogate babysitter. While that can be of value — who doesn’t need 90 minutes of assistance in keeping the offspring entertained from time to time? — it does prop up movies that provide the lightest, least forms of entertainment.
How wonderful it is, then, to find a fascinating, surprisingly heartfelt and hugely entertaining movie that excites film buffs and rug rats alike. We’re talking about an ambitious movie like “Incredibles 2,” which treats its cast of characters, and its target audience, not as generic types, but as intelligent individuals deserving attention.
This is Pixar animation at its best, marshaling the technical mastery of the legendary studio with the creative dash of an independent-minded storyteller. Master illusionist Brad Bird, the director and screenwriter behind the first “Incredibles” as well as “The Iron Giant,” “Ratatouille” and the harder-edged live action spy extravaganza “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” revives his superhero classic in flawless form. Technically a sequel to the 2004 original, it’s actually more of a continuation of that rich, multi-themed story, the first Pixar feature with a truly layered cast of characters and a PG rating for edgy action.
As in the original hit, this is a story of remarkable character design and visually elegant 1960s-chic world-building. The focus is the Parr family, a Middle American clan far from the everyday average that their name implies.
As masked secret heroes, the parents and their two kids possess superhuman powers that make defeating evil geniuses easier than coping with the commonplace flaws in their family relationships. The villain of the piece is a high-tech internet hypnotist called Screenslaver, out to mind-control the story’s metropolis (be warned if you’re sensitive to strobe flashes), but the real challenges bubble beneath the good guys’ private lives.
The key characters are Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), an incredibly strong hero with average intelligence, marital and parenting abilities. His better half Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) is stretched to the snapping point by her dual responsibilities as heroine and mom. Their anxious teen daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) is dealing with the difficulties of first love and social invisibility, while young son Dash (Huck Milner replacing Spencer Fox) is so excited by his hyper speed that he’s rarely slow and steady. Infant Jack-Jack, sent into deep giggles by his own unpredictable powers, is the nuclear family’s latest can of explosives.
Each is a misunderstood outsider, hiding in a culture that sees supers as stigmatized freaks in a world where participation trophies should go to everyone. At the same time, they’re trying to fit into a combustible clan overrun with odd talents. The only character who seems to wear his latex suit comfortably is Bob’s old buddy Frozone (delightfully voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), and even he seems to be skating away at top speed from his bossy, take-charge wife.
There is a good level of espionage excitement in the film, which never wanders off the path in pursuit of cheap laughs. Bird constructs breakneck sequences involving big, bad motorcycle pursuits, out-of-control high-speed trains and a rocketing hydroplane headed toward Titanic-style destruction. The Incredibles find an ally in tycoon Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who is using his business savvy to make supers publicly accepted again. Odenkirk, who plays honorable and evil characters equally well, keeps us guessing as to whether the billionaire is actually a wolf in elegantly tailored sheep’s clothing.
We may have to wait years as the Disney squad gradually releases excellent solo features like “Zootopia,” or the “Finding Nemo” and “Toy Story” Pixar series, but they are worth every minute of the delay. Unlike the studio’s “Star Wars” division, producing mega-franchise fodder year after year, the animators aim to make excellent films with long lifelines. It’s a form of cinematic haute cuisine, gourmet goods that encourage young consumers to develop a connoisseur’s good taste.