When Brad Bird entered Pixar to make “The Incredibles,” he was ahead of the curve with superheroes and midlife crisis storytelling. However, picking up where he left off 14 years later, with “Incredibles 2,” it was much harder to make a superior sequel, especially when Pixar cut a year off his production schedule to accommodate “Toy Story 4.”
The zeitgeist has changed, the superhero landscape has changed, animation has changed, and Bird has changed, after dabbling in live-action with Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” and “Tomorrowland.” Still, Bird had two holdovers in his favor along with greater animated super powers at Pixar: Making Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) the primary Super, relegating Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) to becoming a stay-at-home dad, and the unveiling of baby Jack-Jack’s MCU-enticing super powers.
Staying with the Family Dynamic
“It seems outwardly commercial, but oddly personal,” Bird said. “Mid-life crisis stuff and ‘am I good parent?’ For babies, it’s like: ‘Look at that thing over there — that’s shiny, I want that.’ Only he has super powers.”
But it was never about the super powers as much as the family dynamic, and that’s what drives the sequel. too. Constant problem solving, rolling with the punches, adapting to change. “The kids save the parents, the parents save the kids,” Bird said. “We’re dealing with stuff that’s not really new. ‘Iron Giant’ wrestled with the technical side of our brain versus the soul part, and how we have more influence than we know. It can be used for good or for bad. And we don’t really know what to do with our minds. We are blessed and cursed with them. It’s finding new ways to tell old stories.”
Even the emphasis on female empowerment is not really new, with Helen becoming a full-time Super again, working alongside tech designer Evelyn (Catherine Keener) to foil the hypnotizing evil of Screenslaver. “They’re just real women like in the real world,” said producer Nicole Paradis Grindle. “They’re interesting characters and who they are in the world in relation to men.”
What’s so refreshing about “Incredibles 2” are adult conversations about idealism and cynicism, art and commerce, emotion and intellect, quality and convenience, and active and passive engagement in life and pop culture. As with the first movie, Bird alternates the super with the mundane. Thus, he deftly juxtaposes Elastigirl saving a runaway train or Jack-Jack displaying his polymorphic powers in fighting a raccoon with Bob struggling to teach Dash (Huck Milner) New Math or Helen discussing core beliefs with the more cynical Evelyn.
Embracing the Messiness
Bird offers no easy solutions. The problem was nailing the ever-changing superhero plot and making it all come together with a year sliced from the production schedule. Suddenly the pressure was enormous. “I’d love to tell you I knew what I was doing, but I often don’t,” Bird said. “There were a series of moments and a lot of them were soul crunching. You think you have the answer but it doesn’t work out.”
For example, production designer Ralph Eggleston had a brainstorm to junk the modest, comfortable Parr family house at the last minute with a luxurious, tricked out mansion. It was beautiful on the surface but, psychologically, it was totally wrong for the family, and a much more subversive environment. It screwed with Bird’s script and schedule, but he couldn’t deny that it was a much better fit.
“I felt better because I got to know one of my heroes as a screenwriter, Robert Towne, who wrote the perfect screenplay, ‘Chinatown,” Bird said. “So I asked him if he knew what happened on page 23, like you’re supposed to. And he said, ‘I didn’t know what I was doing. I tried to make this and that wasn’t quite right, and then I tried this and bumped into that wall.
“And then [Faye Dunaway] lived originally and Roman Polanski wanted to kill her, and I hated Roman for years and then I realized later, ‘he’s right.’ I mean, it’s messy. And the guys who actually do work, their process isn’t clean. It’s the [story structure] guys that have the clean process and usually, often, they don’t write screenplays. The real process is a lot more magical and mystifying and inefficient.”
And the pressure was tough for the Pixar animators, even though they were at the top of their game making it look richer and more believable, yet still matching the original’s graphic style, thanks to the latest cutting edge tech. “We’re all trying to find our way to the good and the lasting,” Bird said. “I had a moment when Steve Jobs was around where I was passing by an office and heard him having a very heated conversation with someone on a phone, who was trying to get a pop star that was very hot at that moment singing the song over the end credits. And he just said, ‘Look, I don’t care if she’s popular now. I care what’s good and what’s still going to be good a hundred years from now.’
“He thought, as great as computers and iPhones and all that stuff he helped invent was, it was finite in a way that animation was not. And so he often liked that about Pixar. He knew that stuff was still going to be looked at later if we did our job right. And I loved his long view because often there’s something quick and cheap you can take advantage of to get heat at the moment. And he didn’t care at all about that. And that was really inspiring. We’re not making it just for now but for long into the future, for anyone who’s interested in storytelling.”