The charms of Pixar Animation Studios’ first wave of original films have been replaced in the 2010s by a barrage of sequels. Their early films felt fresh. Even though the company’s third film was the beloved Toy Story 2, Pixar avoided the Hollywood impulse of turning into a sequel factory. But recently, they’ve made Cars 2, Cars 3, Monsters University, and Finding Dory, which mostly failed to live up to expectations.

Now, we have Incredibles 2, whose writer/director Brad Bird is only a few years removed from the live-action flop Tomorrowland. So, it’s not wrong to wonder if the new adventures of the superheroic Parr family would feel creatively uninspired. Happily, while Incredibles 2 doesn’t reach the same heights as the 2004 original, it’s more intelligent than other recent sequels.

Picking up exactly where the original left off, Incredibles 2 unites the super-strong Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible, the super-stretchy Helen Parr/Elastigirl, their super-fast son Dash, and super-invisible daughter Violet as they face off against the evil Underminer. This opening-act battle causes property damage on such a large scale that the Parrs are chewed out by the cops, and the relocation program that would hide them in plain sight is summarily dismantled. Lucky for the Parrs and their old friend Lucius/Frozone, they’re approached by a brother-and-sister pair of rich innovators, Winston and Evelyn Deavor, who want to up the profile of superheroes and make their existence legal once more. This time, Bob has to stay at home, handling Dash, Violet, and baby Jack-Jack while Helen saves the day and deals with a mysterious new villain called the Screenslaver.

As with The Incredibles, Incredibles 2 (who knows why “The” is missing from the new film’s title) is equally invested in the moments surrounding any action or comic setpieces, as it is in those setpieces. The new film does feature plenty of action and laughs: an early scene in which Elastigirl stops a runaway hover-train from crashing is the best superhero action sequence of the year, surpassing anything in the MCU. Also, everything with the multi-powered Jack-Jack is often hilarious, expanding on the third-act reveal in The Incredibles that he’s got plenty of special gifts himself.

But Brad Bird apparently had a lot to get off his chest with Incredibles 2. As in Tomorrowland, the villain’s motivations feel akin to Bird’s frustrations, this time with how modern society elevates superheroes to an unjustifiably mythic status. (The Screenslaver has a lengthy monologue fiercely scolding people for letting heroes distract them from real-world problems, which is…interesting to hear in a superhero movie.) Admittedly, some of the Screenslaver’s machinations seem anachronistic; the masked villain’s use of hypnosis through screens would be more impactful if the story wasn’t clearly set in the 1960s. But it’s still encouraging that Incredibles 2 doesn’t repeat every storytelling beat from its predecessor; the Screenslaver — who’s more interesting before their identity is revealed — is a far cry from Syndrome, for good and ill.

Also for good and ill: the subplot in which Bob struggles to let Helen take the spotlight instead of wresting it for himself. At one point, he’s barely able to say that she’ll “do a great job,” like he’s Fonzie on Happy Days fighting the urge to say he was wrong. Though Helen flat-out tells Bob, “Well, that was excruciating to watch,” it doesn’t sidestep that Bob’s fight to accept that someone else — gasp! A lady! — can be a hero isn’t as exciting as…watching Helen be a hero. It’s an especially unfortunate subplot in a time in the industry where gender dynamics are rightfully criticized and upended, as well as a time of upheaval at Pixar where its leader, John Lasseter, is finally stepping down after allegations of sexual harassment. (Also, it’s not as if Bob struggled with Helen being Elastigirl in the first film, making his frustration here all the stranger.) These flaws are enough to make it so Incredibles 2 doesn’t top its 14-year old predecessor. However, it’s to the film’s credit that such flaws are vastly more interesting to ponder than those of films like Cars 3 and Finding Dory.

Brad Bird knows his characters well enough that the story moves along at a great clip – this is Pixar’s longest film at 118 minutes but feels fleet of foot. And the setpieces are another reminder that, Tomorrowland aside, Bird is one of the great action directors of our time. (Remember how great Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was?) Incredibles 2 also benefits from a gorgeous production design; even more than the original, this movie’s retro style, from the luxurious house Winston Deavor gifts to the Parrs down to boxes of cereal in the pantry, is lush and top-notch.

The cast is equally top-notch; Holly Hunter was one of the first film’s highlights, and her nuanced performance as Elastigirl is again a bright spot. Bird, if not Pixar as a whole, deserves credit for casting the right actors for the part, as opposed to the most famous actors. Hunter and Craig T. Nelson, as Bob, are as believable as a married couple as they are as superheroes. The two big additions are Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener as Winston and Evelyn Deavor, who are both solid even if their characters’ depth is only teased at in the script.

Pixar has now made 20 feature films over 23 years; seven of those films, including Incredibles 2, are sequels or prequels. (Their next film, opening in June 2019, is Toy Story 4. Sigh.) The expectations this studio places on itself, and that audiences place upon them, are sky-high, to a possibly damaging point. (This specific idea is mirrored in Bob’s character arc, and is more compelling than his frustration about Helen getting the glory.) The Incredibles is one of Pixar’s, and Brad Bird’s, best films. Bird is a good enough filmmaker that Incredibles 2 doesn’t come close to matching his personal best. But it’s a more exciting film than the last spate of Pixar sequels, both thrilling and thought-provoking.

Note: As is the norm, Incredibles 2 is preceded by a new Pixar short. This time, it’s Domee Shi’s Bao, in which a lonely old Chinese woman finds that one of the dumplings she makes comes to life. The setup sounds almost too twee, but the ways in which Shi takes the story down unexpected avenues are delightful and charming. By the end, Bao aims to tug on your heartstrings — a good deal more than the feature film that follows — but is mostly memorable for its character design and fast-paced visual gags.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.