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Review: ‘Incredibles 2’

dfn-Incredibles2-poster-300Before superheroes dominated the thinking of big Hollywood studios entirely, The Incredibles felt like a blast of fresh air in 2004.

Revolving around the Parr family, hiding out in suburbia because superheroes have become illegal, the film illustrated the very real dangers that might exist if super-powered people existed in the real world, weighed against the good that might be accomplished by such people if they were allowed to legally act upon their own altruistic intentions.

Written and directed by Brad Bird, The Incredibles followed up the filmmaker’s previous animated triumph, The Iron Giant, with an approach that felt very much ‘of the moment,’ a self-aware adventure that was filled with action sequences as well as commentary on contemporary issues. Bird completed his trilogy of outstanding animated films with another dissection of power and its relative value in Ratatouille, disguising his disgust in a heartwarming food story.

Bird then turned to live-action projects, first helming Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol to enjoyable, popcorn-chewing delight, and then faltering a bit with Tomorrowland, which resounded in visual splendors yet stumbled with its often-confusing, perhaps overly ambitious narrative.

Now he has returned to the friendly world of big-budget animation with Incredibles 2, which is absorbing and compelling to watch on the big screen, even though it doesn’t supply as much fresh material as his earlier animated endeavors.

Perhaps that was Bird’s intention? The new film picks up soon after the conclusion of the original. Bob Parr, aka Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), his wife Helen Parr, aka Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), their teenage daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), their young son Dashiell (Huck Milner) and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) are in the government’s witness protection program — or, rather, the ‘super protection program’ — and struggling to get by in life.

Everyone in the family is superpowered, except for baby Jack-Jack, and remains eager to use their abilities to help ordinary citizens, especially when they come under attack by criminals and other villainous elements. Such activity is still illegal, however. And, after the family leaps into action to try and stop one such villain, not altogether successfully, the government acts swiftly to shut down the program and stop providing financial assistance.

Soon enough, however, possible salvation arrives in the form of Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister, Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener). Winston is the very public head of a large and very successful telecommunications company who is very much in favor of all superpowered people (or “supers”) returning to legality and he enlists Elastigirl in his public campaigning efforts. His sister Evelyn, meanwhile, likes to stay in the background while she develops innovative technology to further the cause.

As Elastigirl becomes a spokesperson for the “make supers legal” campaign, she is drawn away from her family, leaving Mr. Incredible to remain just Bob, a beleaguered ‘house husband’ who is quickly overwhelmed by domestic duties and raising their children on his own. Violet is a rebellious teen and Dashiell is a mischievous kid. Oh, and Jack-Jack starts to demonstrate that, while he cannot talk yet, he definitely has inherited a few powers of the “super” variety.

The pace is lively and the extended action sequences are well designed for maximum impact, each differentiated by the primary character(s) involved. Elastigirl’s early sequences, for example, are dark and shadowy, reminiscent of film noir in color as she prowls about the city in search of crimes to foil.

Incredibles 2 flies along with such visual grace, bolstered by witty dialogue and insightful character moments, that the absence of any great driving force behind the film as a whole is not felt until the third act. It’s wonderful that the focus has been shifted from the male to the female perspective on things (in general), yet beyond that, the film doesn’t have much else on its mind, or at least nothing that approaches the depths explored in Bird’s first three animated features.

In that sense, Incredibles 2 resembles Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol: a roaring good time that won’t necessarily stick in your head for any particular reason, beyond its considerable value as feel-good entertainment.

The film opens in theaters throughout Dallas and Fort Worth on Friday, June 15.

Review: ‘Brave’ Introduces the Pixar Princess

'Brave' (Disney-Pixar)
‘Brave’ (Disney-Pixar)

Pixar Animation Studios has created a consistently impressive body of work since Toy Story was unleashed upon the world in 1995.

That debut was immediately noteworthy because of its advanced computer graphics, but as the company hit its stride with Finding Nemo (2003) and The Incredibles (2004), it became apparent that Pixar was even more concerned with honing their stories and characters to the highest quality possible, to a point well beyond the dismissive “good for a kiddie flick” or “not bad for a cartoon.”

Cars was considered a dip, falling below their standard of quality, but upon reflection (and repeat viewing) it’s more comparable to A Bug’s Life or Monsters, Inc., enjoyable comedies, though lacking in emotional and thematic heft.

Pixar upped its game with its next four releases (Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3); each deserved placement among the best films of its respective year. Cars 2 was a greater disappointment, as much as anything because the brain trust behind the film failed to learn much from the shortcomings of the original.

And now we come to Brave, which is a good and ambitious film, yet betrays several weaknesses in its narrative structure that keep it from fulfilling its potential for greatness. Nonetheless, it stands up on its own as a charming and rambunctiously entertaining story with absolutely gorgeous animation.

Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) grows up in the royal household of a kingdom in ancient Scotland. She is a princess, but the crown worn by her father Fergus (Billy Connolly) is meant to be passed on to the man she will marry, to be chosen from among the first-born sons of the other three kings (Craig Ferguson, Kevin McKidd, Robbie Coltrane) who rule in the land.

Naturally, Princess Merida is not happy about the prospect of an arranged marriage to a complete stranger, but she is even less enchanted by her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson), whose entire life is focused on making Merida’s day to day existence a nightmare. At least, that’s how Merida sees it: her mother enforces rules that restrict Merida’s personal freedom and trains her relentlessly for her future role as Queen. The young woman wants nothing more than to be free to live her life the way she chooses, without any rules or restrictions.

Oh, if only there were a spell that could get Merida’s mother off her back …

Quicker than you can hum “When You Wish Upon a Star,” Merida is heading deep into the forest and emerging with something that will change her mother, er, profoundly and unexpectedly. Let’s just say that it leads to some unbearable excitement before the credits roll.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to shrug off the idea that Disney’s long-established “princess ideal” has rubbed off on Pixar. Brave is Pixar’s first film to feature a female protoganist, and yet choosing a princess seems to be a backwards step. Unlike Disney’s traditional efforts, or even the studio’s recent Tangled, however, the relationship between mother and daughter feels grounded on a very human, relatable scale.

Writer/director Brenda Chapman conceived the project as a dark fairy tale, and drew upon her own experiences with her daughter. Creative disagreements arose, however, and Mark Andrews took over as director in the midst of production. That’s not unusual with animated films, which have been re-shaped time and again through the long period it takes for production, but in the case of Brave, the film does not emerge as a unified whole.

There is a clash of sensibilities, the story takes several perplexing turns, and the characters are not well-defined. It’s especially disappointing that the extremely vital mother/daughter relationship takes a back seat right at the point in the narrative where it’s ripe for further exploration.

Still, the film is above average in quality, it’s very funny, and it’s refreshing in that it expands Pixar’s palette into even more adult territory. Maybe the next time or two out, the result(s) will be completely successful.

Brave opens wide across the Metroplex on Friday, June 22.

Review: Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3

Like most sequels, Toy Story 3 follows in the formulaic footsteps of its predecessors.

Unlike the blueprints for most sequels, however, Pixar’s formula is good. As a result, Toy Story 3 is a warm, very funny, character-based adventure that is filled with inventive turns. Broken down to its essence, it’s still “toys get separated, must get home,” but the film finds new ways to explore old dilemmas. Rather than simply amp up one element at the expense of another — more explosions! more villains! — everything remains well-balanced. New characters are introduced, yet they don’t steal the spotlight away from the core cast.

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