Take a Bao: Josh Pearce and Arley Sorg Discuss Incredibles 2
Before we can talk about Incredibles 2 we have to talk about Bao. This is the first Pixar short film directed by a woman, Chinese Canadian filmmaker Domee Shi. It centers on a Chinese mother with a case of empty nest syndrome. She gets a second chance at motherhood when one of the dumplings she makes comes to life as a baby boy.
Josh: Is that the official description? That’s not what I thought was happening. I thought the little dumpling boy was how she viewed her son while he was growing up. Didn’t think it was “a second chance at motherhood.”
Arley: Doesn’t matter! This was so good! It was a highlight for me.
Josh: My wife was crying. Everyone I talked to about it said they cried. I almost teared up but I was able to repress my emotions just in time.
Arley: It was slightly weird and extremely touching. It worked well as a speculative story. If I’d seen that come across a slush pile as a short story, I’d be like, oh…!
Bao has no dialogue, relying instead on expressive characters. The animation is gorgeous and interesting, with cultural specific details.
Josh: They’ve shifted their target from kids to the parents who are taking their kids to the movies, because that is totally a parent story. Kids will think, what a cute little thing, but parents will think, oh my god my heart is breaking.
Arley: It’ll hit all adult-age people who have enough empathy to understand what their parents have gone through.
Bao is compact and complex, and it taps into the power of family.
Josh: Food is love.
After Bao leaves you emotionally hammered and sets a very high bar with a demonstration of effective storytelling, Incredibles 2 gets off to a comparatively rocky start. There’s a fairly long introduction with the stars of the movie talking about how wonderful the project was, the 14-year journey from first to second film, and thanking the audience for coming. The whole intro feels like they’re selling it too hard and the film might have been better served if the thank yous were at the end.
Fourteen years is a huge gap, and the new film opens right after the events of the first one, so viewers may be at a loss to remember what exactly is going on as the movie immediately throws them into an action scene.
Josh: I think the movie was an homage to old school… maybe not Golden Age but close—maybe Silver Age comics. Because it’s very flat animation, and uses that Soviet propaganda poster style.
Arley: I think the opening was an homage to the old, old, old Superman cartoons. The opening sequence colors, lighting, animation, it all reminded me of the 1940s Fleischer Superman cartoons. The lighting was dark, more like that dark-lit, dark-colors Superman.
Josh: Incredibles is Art Deco, like Raygun gothic. A retro futurism, calling back to the halcyon times of comics. They have 50s-style cars, agents in black suits and black ties. An idealized version of America’s past, where superheroes are an idealized version of the American person. The ubermencsh.
Arley: Yeah, the original Superman idea.
Josh: But they are also poking at that, I think. See the Screenslaver’s, the villain’s, monologue.
Arley: I wrote in my notes, “The villain makes good points!”
(Both laughing.) Josh: High-five!
Arley: Gone are the days when the villains are so insane that you’re just like, what the hell?!
Josh: It’s especially funny because he’s talking about people being tied to screens and having superheroes save you while we’re watching a movie on a screen about superheroes. He’s talking directly to the audience.
The story is pretty standard to the superhero genre in comic books, TV, and film: using superpowers is illegal. The superhero Parr family—Bob/Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huckleberry Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile)—are prohibited from using their powers, even for good. They are approached by billionaire philanthropist Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister Evelyn (Catherin Keener) who want to secretly fund the Incredibles in their crime-fighting, ostensibly for pure-hearted motives and to restore the reputations of superheroes everywhere. They choose Elastigirl as their public face, which leaves Mr. Incredible behind at home to raise three kids on his own.
One of the challenges Incredibles 2 faces is that at the time of The Incredibles in 2004, superhero movies were relatively rare. The first two X-Men movies had come out in 2000 and 2003, Spider-Man in 2002. Now, in 2018, just about every sort of media is flush with superhero content. The American moviegoer is far more fluent with superhero tropes, expectations, and clichés. Ideas and scenes that were novel in that earlier environment stand as far less innovative.
The politicians in the movie are so against vigilante superheroes that they make laws against using powers—but then the superheroes use them anyway, potentially suggesting that legislation which is unfair should not be followed. We can have a long discussion about this (and we did), but it’s also something we’ve already seen in Captain America: Civil War.
Arley: A lot of the conversations this movie is having are still stuck 14 years ago. They’re played out. Superheroes are illegal, some of the social dynamics and traditional gender roles…
Josh: I agree. But Incredibles 2 only does those things superficially. The real story is family. “My children have superpowers. What the hell do I do with this?”
Arley: Which is funny.
Josh: And that can be a whole self-contained story there. “I’m a dude who’s super strong, and my baby breathes fire.” Which is funny and you can do a whole story without fight scenes, without villains, but that would be a pretty boring superhero movie, being stuck in the house the entire time, so they have to throw in the whole top-level plot.
Arley: I agree that its main theme is about family. There’s the family theme in Bao, as well, but Bao does it better, and in far less time, and without dialogue.
Mr. Incredible is cartoonishly masculine, and using the outdated Mr. Mom trope to showcase his frailties serves to highlight the strengths of the women in this film. Elastigirl is clearly a focus of the movie, having the lion’s share of screen time, engaging in battles, and consistently driving the plot forward. She rises heroically in dangerous situations and has the sort of intellectual conversations featured in many iconic hero/villain pairings.
Arley: You also have the kids who are trying to be adults. They are trying to matter. They want to feel relevant and do stuff. When I think about it, that is the most real and possibly the most socially relevant aspect to the movie.
Josh: Every character in the family has an arc except for Dash. Dash has no development, or character arc, or story arc. At one point he even says, “I don’t want to hide my power—it defines who I am.” His entire character is that he runs really fast.
Arley: The story focuses a lot on Violet. She has the most character development.
Josh: I think the movie is mostly about Jack-Jack. Everyone’s just reacting to what the hell the baby is doing.
There were pleasant character and comedic surprises throughout the movie, the action was exciting, and the scenes involving the baby were some of the best. Stylistically, Incredibles 2 is a pleasure to watch.
Josh: I really liked the character Voyd, whose powers were creating portals. Like in the videogame, Portal. Super cool to see that in a movie. Also, I really enjoyed hearing Bob Odenkirk’s voice and Jonathan Banks as the FBI agent, because I think both those actors are fantastic—they’re my favorites in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
Arley: There were a few groan-worthy moments of, “Would they really do that?” and “Why doesn’t she just do this?” Those convenient sequences where character choices are obviously less than wise or strategic, but seem necessary for the movie to keep going. The momentum of the narrative moved me through them quickly, but they damaged the credibility of the action a little bit for me.
The supposed twist ending was fairly transparent, and although altogether Incredibles 2 is a fun movie with a lot of dimensions and entertainment value, without the benefit of novelty it doesn’t quite reach the level of incredibility of the original.
Bao directed by: Domee Shi
Starring: Daniel Kailin, Sindy Lau
Incredibles 2 written and directed by: Brad Bird
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huckleberry Milner, Catherine Keener, Eli Fucile, Bob Odenkirk, and Samuel L. Jackson
ARLEY SORG, Associate Editor, grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and usually writes in local coffee shops. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he is soldering together a novel, has thrown a few short stories into orbit, and hopes to launch more.
JOSH PEARCE, Assistant Editor, started working at Locus in 2016. He studied creative writing at SFSU and has sold short stories and poems to a variety of speculative fiction magazines. A Bay Area native, he currently lives in the East Bay with his wife and son and spends way too much time on Twitter: @fictionaljosh. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.
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