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Film review: 'Incredibles 2'

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One of my all-time favorite film viewing experiences at the theater was seeing Brad Bird's "The Incredibles" during its opening weekend. Watching the film, I instantly fell in love with its gorgeously-designed animation and exciting superhero action, combined with a sweet message about family. By the time the movie ended, my boyfriend and I were both so blown away by what we'd seen that we immediately ducked right back into the theater to watch it again. And it was just as wonderful a second time around.

All this to say that any sequel to "The Incredibles" had a lot to live up to. The first film was released back in 2004, when Hollywood was still in the early stages of its current superhero movie obsession. Fourteen years later, "The Incredibles" remains one of the great animated films, and one of the best superhero movies of all time. So when I'd first heard Pixar was planning a follow-up to the original, I was apprehensive.

Pixar's once sterling reputation has been tarnished ever-so-slightly by their turn toward sequels, which aside from the "Toy Story" films, have never lived up to their original films. There seemed little chance that a second "Incredibles" film could live up to the towering achievement of the first, but I couldn't help being eager to see what Pixar had come up with.

Clearly I wasn't alone: the movie just had the biggest opening weekend of any animated film.

Happily, fans had nothing to worry about. While it doesn't quite match the first movie's mix of heart, adventure, and style (though really, what could?), it's still an immensely satisfying continuation of the story.

The sequel, once again written and directed by Pixar genius Brad Bird (whose credits also include the masterpiece "The Iron Giant" and "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol"), picks up exactly where the first film left off.

We check back in with superhero family, the Parrs: there's Bob AKA super-strong Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), Helen, AKA extra stretchy Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), their children, invisible teen daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), super-speedy son Dash (Huck Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile).

In the film's world, superheroes have been made illegal and are forced to live by their secret identities, keeping their powers hidden from the population at large. But things begin to turn when Helen is recruited by corporate tycoon Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his tech-savvy sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) to be the public face of their campaign to bring superheroes back into the limelight.

Meanwhile Bob is left to care for the kids and Jack-Jack, a task made more difficult as the infant starts to manifest a variety of unexpected powers, including the ability to shoot lasers from his eyes, combust without warning, and suddenly vanish into other dimensions. As you might expect, caring for such a child is a challenge. As with the first film, the family dynamic is just as important as the super-powered action, as the script weaves in ideas about gender dynamics and the challenges of parenting in its many forms.

In keeping with the sequel requirement, "Incredibles 2" is larger in scope than its predecessor, and Bird's script has too many ideas tumbling around that don't entirely gel into a coherent whole. Without the first film's solid emotional core as an anchor, it feels busier and less focused than the original.

Helen's first mission pits her up against a baddie known as The Screenslaver, who's been hypnotizing citizens through their own monitors and television screens. Continuing Bird's interest in examining the role that elites play in any society, the villain's ultimate plot hinges on their belief that the existence of superheroes allows the public to grow complacent, secure in the knowledge that someone more powerful will swoop in and fix their problems for them. It's an intriguing idea, though it doesn't help that the Screenslaver's true identity is evident fairly early on.

But the film's highlights come in its many ingeniously conceived action sequences. Bird is a master at staging inventive superhero battles, taking clear delight in seeing how various superpowers interact with one another. "Incredibles 2" takes great advantage of the huge leaps forward in detail of animation since the previous film; these sequences put those in its live-action counterparts to shame.

The influence of the James Bond film series shines through: the "Incredibles" film are spy movies as much as they are superhero movies. It's also reflected in the beautifully realized 60s-inspired retro futurist design, an aesthetic that carries over to Michael Giacchino's energetically jazzy, John Barry-influenced score.

Battling against the weight of expectation, "Incredibles 2" doesn't have quite the power of the original, but with plenty of humor, excitement, and heart, it's still an exhilarating ride.

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