For Father’s Day Daughter and I went to dinner and a movie - gosh, guess which one. Everyone always puts The Incredibles near the top of their Pixar list, and I’d agree - but in a way it felt as if it stood outside the Pixar canon, because it didn’t augur into your sternum and shred your heart at some point. It was just fun and fresh with a mid-century look. The sequel also does not rip out your heart, and I think we can be grateful for that; it’s nice not to leave the theater with wet cheeks and a sopping sleeve.
I’ve gotten bored with superhero movies lately. Haven’t seen Avengers. There was a time when I wouldn’t have missed it, but now I think: eh, rental. Not because Avengers itself bores me - I love the characters, although I got a bit tired of bitchy-quippy Iron Man. I have dipped in and out of Thor Ragnarok on Netflix, and the jokey tone the movies have lifted from Guardians movies seemed to leach away whatever quality made them connect with me. Plus, there’s always a huge battle where the world is at stake, again. Countless buildings get destroyed, and you think “computers are really good at simulating the destruction of glass. Boy, the computing cycles that went into reflecting the world as each individual shard flies off on its own trajectory, that’s impressive.”
In Incredibles 2 I was mesmerized by a drinking glass. Elastigirl is talking to a character at a party who’s holding a tumbler - looks like she’s drinking an Old Fashioned. The bottom of the glass is thick, the middle is filled with liquid and ice cubes, there’s an empty inch above it, and then the rim. I expect Pixar had an entire team working on that glass. The way each of the elements of the glass reflect and distort as the character raises and lowers the glass was absolutely indistinguishable from reality.
The characters didn’t look real, though - they’re all caricatures, exaggerated to keep us from expecting human fidelity, ward off a trip to the Uncanny Valley. But if the physical world looks convincing, we believe in the characters who inhabit it.
I looked back at the original Incredibles backgrounds and urban settings, and compared to 2 it’s like a Seuss book and a Maxfield Parrish. The sets of 2 keep the flavor of the mid-century / mod environments of the original, with some nice nods to actual landmarks of the style. The Happy Platter restaurant, for example. And again, I was transfixed by the drinking glasses - they got this exactly right:
And if you paid close attention you saw the clump of ice bob the way it would when you poured in the water. I say this because a lot of people worked on glassware and liquid in this movie, and they deserve respect - and you know there were teams working on all sorts of things you didn’t notice consciously, but registered to make the world seem real. There was someone who probably spent two weeks studying the way painted bolts on nautical pipes looks. They had to.
That’s all about the technical abilities and the advances in animation art, and it doesn’t mean anything if the story’s meh and the action’s rote. So?
I’d say the story is familiar in retrospect. At the time you’re borne along with the speed and the new characters and set-pieces; on hindsight, you think “yeah, that seemed like the other one.” It sidelines Mr. Incredible for the middle of the movie, and more - why, it makes him a total cuck while we have to sit through she-ra grrrrlpower BS! Er, no. On the face of it, standard sitcom fare. Dad has to stay home with the kids, and finds it’s not as easy as it looks! But it’s all so amusing you look forward to the scenes - they’re a breather from the three action set-pieces Elastagirl does, and each of them is just - ridiculously - good.
I’m just writing off the top of my head here; thank God I’m not a critic. But about those three set-pieces.
The first is an attempt to stop a runaway train. It ranges across the city, from streets to roof-top, and A) I cursed myself for not seeing it in 3D, although we did get IMAX, and B) it’s one of those most coherent and comprehensible examples of the chase-action-superhero sequences you’ll see. It’s utterly unrealistic in the sense that people’s bodies don’t do those things, but most superhero movies are unrealistic in the sense that even gods and guys in iron suits ought not to be able to survive those things.
The train-chase is unrealistic, but you intuit rules. She may stretch, but she can’t get in front of the train and stop it. She may stretch, but she can’t get as thin as a single tube of atoms and shoot to the front of the train. She can move quickly, but she still needs a motorcycle. The rules matter, and invest you in the scene.
The second set-piece is shorter - a helicopter battle in the streets. It comes faster than you’d expect, and kicks the movie back into gear just as it was catching its breath.
The third is small-scale and intimate, unlike the others. She’s web-slinging through the night city while we hear the voice-over of the bad guy, and he’s delivering a rather damning message. And he makes a lot of sense. When the two finally meet, the visuals kick into something so shocking you’re utterly disoriented, and it might have been a way of minimizing the actual pain and violence that takes place. She pursues him through the halls of an old apartment building that looks like something from Kojak, shoving through the panicked residents, dazed, off her game - the opposite of the kinetic confidence of the first set-piece.
The thrilling effect of these scenes could not have been accomplished in the first. The tech wasn’t there.
Then . . . the dreaded Third Act Problem.
1. It has to have big action, and we’ve already seen Big Action - so we’re resigned to BIGGER ACTION WITH MORE NOISE AND DANGER! It has to have peril for the family, but we know deep down they’ll be okay. It requires Mr. Incredible to perform a Feat of Strength. In lesser hands, there would have been a scene where he says he’s realized something about himself from his time as a caregiver, and that’s what it means to be truly strong - meaningful look between husband and wife, and then she gives him the Dreamworks expression (smile, brows down) and gives him permission to do that old manly stuff he does so well.
But no, they’re in trouble, trying to figure out what the hell to do, and Mr. Incredible is confabbing with wife and Frozone, and then they go do it, and there’s no Very Special Moment where everyone learns something. There isn’t time for that nonsense.
2. What helps solves the Third Act Problem is Jack-Jack, a loose random element thrown into the action, fracturing all the cliches.
3. The fate of the world isn’t at stake. Everyone in the audience knows they’re going to do what needs to be done. That’s what they do. There’s a wild-card thrown into the final moments of the set-piece that adds some suspense, but it’s not the wearisome Dreaded Third Act situation where our hero is just about to succeed but ONE MORE FARGIN’ THING HAPPENS and he has to PUNCH SOMETHING and then make a DESPERATE LUNGE and then VICTORY.
So. As good as the first? I scrolled through Rotten Tomatoes, and the critics seemed to make a point of saying no, but it’s a worthy sequel. They’d praise the first for its family dynamics, and say the sequel didn’t have the same resonance. Erh - there’s nothing in the first like Mr. Incredible’s domestic trials. He gets up at 2:30 AM to study Dash’s math textbook because he can’t figure out how to help his son.
One critic said:
For some reason, we can’t crawl through the cartoon door and into this universe the same way we used to. We’ve grown, either too jaded by experience or too overwhelmed by the images, to fit into this reduction.
Who’s this “we” of which you speak? I can enter this universe with ease if the talent behind its construction is as uniformly superb as the talent behind the Pixar movies. I watched the movie in the same state as I watched the other Pixar great films: gratitude and anticipation. The former for what I was seeing, the latter for what I couldn’t imagine I would see next.
Daughter and I walked out buzzed and laughing, and let out a whoop when we got outside. Best Father’s Day ever.
PS Dash is watching TV at one point: Jonny Quest. I might be wrong, but I think it’s the episode with the spider robot, one of the best. Earlier in the movie when Elastagirl is swinging through the dark city, we see signs and logos on the roofs of the buildings. One of them is the Quest logo. Just for a second or two. It’s one of those things that reminds you how much you’ll see if you watch it again.
PPS Michael Giacchino’s score is the best James Bond movie score since “You Only Live Twice.”
PPPS Yes, it’s as good as the first. For heaven’s sake. Yes.
Yes, it's a repeat - or rather a revisit. Because I’m going to make the argument that this is the greatest creature feature of them all.
Don’t worry, it’s B&W, aside from that. I come back to this one in the summer every few years, because it summed up - like no other movie - the delights of a Saturday late-night creature feature.
So what makes it work? The cast. Actual actors:
James Whitmore. He’s the thoughtful cop, not the guns-blazing or just-the-facts stereotype.
The catatonic kid was unnerving.
Children are not supposed to be like this. (Sandy Descher, kid actress with tons of credits; no current info.)
First we see the catatonic kid. What made her this way? Then we see her home, torn apart. What did this? Then the ambulance comes - with our old friend William Schallert - and they hear a straaaaaange whistling that unsettles them. And us.
It’s nine minutes in, and you’re already on edge. Then a storm kicks up and we’re off to a store that’s been torn apart . . . by something. Again, it’s the extra touches - like the swinging light.
The radio is playing news unrelated to the story.. The strange sound comes back. The cop’s left alone.
14 minutes in.
Composition: we meet a new guy - Marshal Dillon! He’s the tallest guy in the room, he sits down right away, so the composition angles down on the Man in White.
The little girl wakes up, and this is her moment to shine, althought she screams THEM! which is a bit odd - although it would spoil it all if she said ANTS! but everyone saw the poster, right? Everyone knew it was about Ants, right? Anyway, no kid’s going to shout THEM. But it works.
Out to the desert, where the wind blows, and our brave band looks for clues. I love Space Marshal Dillon:
I forgot to mention that there's the crusty-but-lovable scientist and his gorgeous scientist daughter.
What I love about the old scientist: he doesn’t want to save the ants to study them. He’s all about bombing and gassing them ASAP. What follows is 15 minutes of anti-Ant action, and this sets up the basics for the genre: a big engagement in the first half will let you coast through the second half with scenes of urgent people saying urgent things urgently in rooms, with stock footage of tanks.
We see the Queen’s chamber - or rather, it’s what we don’t see.
Well, you know how these things go. Sightings. . .
. . . growing worry, meetings with The Authorities. Here we have the santicification of the movie by the future:
They interview people who've seen the ants. They range from the confused but sane:
In the middle of the growing tension, they drop some comic relief - and it works.
But then we meet the mother whose boys are missing. Again, the simplicity of the compositions:
I'll say no more, because there's no point in describing and applauding something that moves forward with such urgency, and that's why the movie works: it was made by smart, talented people who respected what they were doing. You suspect they enjoyed it, too.
It's the template, right down to the ending.
I can't imagine that anyone who doesn't enjoy a good sci-fi thriller hasn't seen it, and seen it as many times as I have.
And so the week begins, he said portentiously, knowning he had nothing to back it up. Or did he? (no, he didn't) See you around.