Pixar has long cultivated a mythos of being the last studio to truly put story before all else. In an era dominated by brands — Star Wars, Marvel, Harry Potter, etc. — Pixar has the singular luxury of the studio itself, and not really any specific type of story, being the “brand.” That, in addition to the natural qualities of animation, like not being driven by stars or action set pieces, have allowed them the freedom to vary their offerings widely, from dinosaurs to Dia De Los Muertos, always supposedly in service to however much they were inspired by an interesting story idea.
That perception of being story-first affords Pixar a certain “cool,” even in artsy-fartsy circles, despite being owned by Disney, the multinational’s multinational. The Incredibles 2, out this week from director Brad Bird (who also directed the original), feels like a departure from that approach — not just because it’s a sequel, and not entirely in a bad way.
Of Pixar’s first 10 films, only one was a sequel. Of their last five, The Incredibles 2 is their third. When you’re making so many sequels, it’s harder to make “telling unique stories” your calling card. The most impressive thing about The Incredibles 2 is that they seem to have found a way to compensate. Story-wise, it’s a little weak. Visually, it might be the best film they’ve ever made. Styled like a ’60s design magazine and featuring a climax set on a speeding hydrofoil (!), it manages to combine the appeal of prestige TV costume dramas and movies where The Rock has to fight a tidal wave with a helicopter. They’ve translated action movie spectacle to animation in a way that hasn’t really been done before.
Did you know the first Incredibles was set in 1962? I had no idea, and apparently, I wasn’t the only one. In the sequel, the setting is immediately apparent, opening on a fluffy-headed, turtlenecked high schooler recounting the previous day’s events to a smoky government functionary who bears a striking resemblance to a young Abe Vigoda (he has that almost-bald-but-not-quite head of greased back hair, like a later years Humphrey Bogart). We flash back to the kid hiding underneath tail-finned big blocks in the parking lot of a poodle-skirted high school during the film’s first set piece. In its first five minutes, The Incredibles 2 already has more visual identifiers than the entire original. Which is emblematic of its style-first approach, so evocative of sixties cool that you can practically smell the speaker cabinets.