Soon after the slamming opener of “Incredibles 2” — with its flying rubble, fleeing people and bloviating bank robber — the scene shifts to a police-station interrogation room. There, a few cops berate the superhero Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) and his wife and partner in heroics, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), for meddling. They left a swathe of destruction in their wake, and besides the bank was insured. Mr. Incredible transforms into Mr. Indignant, declaring that they didn’t start the fight, which is an amusingly self-serving way to jump-start a sequel.
The cops have a point, of course, but there’s no fun in insurance, which Mr. Incredible and his admirers know. Under the name Bob Parr, he used to work in insurance — that is until he angrily tossed his boss through a couple of walls. That was 14 years ago in “The Incredibles,” the movie that introduced the superhero clan whose members have unique abilities. Insurance was part of the normalizing disguise that Bob and the Family Parr wore to hide the brilliant gifts that are at once their calling and their art (and sometimes their burden). Few can rearrange the world as artfully and as enjoyably as the Incredibles, except of course their creator Brad Bird.
And, like his superheroes, Mr. Bird is extraordinarily good at destruction, which is very much in evidence in the virtuosic, often delightful “Incredibles 2,” which picks up narratively where the last movie left off. It’s still a fantasy 1962 or thereabouts as the boxy cars, clothing and midcentury modern flourishes suggest, but advances in computer animation make everything — from downy hair to brick buildings — look far sharper and more fine-grained. Here, you can almost count the stubble on Bob’s unshaven face and trace the swirls in the billowing, churning dust clouds that form after an explosion.
All that detail is so exquisitely rendered that it would be easy to get lost in the movie’s particulars: to bask in the silvery glow of Elastigirl’s uniforms, to ooh and aah over the striking design of a luxurious hideaway worthy of a Bond villain, to meditate on the David Hockney-esque patterns of the water in a motel pool seen at night. But once again, and more so than in the first installment, Mr. Bird is working to the steady beat of a classic action movie — ka-boom, yakety-yak, ka-boom — so much so that there are times when you wish that he would slow things down and let you luxuriate longer in the sheer loveliness of his images.
No such luck. Mr. Bird, who wrote and directed, clearly had a lot that he wanted to cram into this sequel, which runs two fast hours. The story is often the least of it, though it has its moments, including some awkward asides on free enterprise (good), government (not so much), women working outside the home (right on) and feminism (it’s complicated). Soon after the movie takes off, the Incredibles learn that the government has shut down the secret program under which they’ve lived and worked, leaving them stuck in a motel with no prospects. “Politicians,” someone laments, “don’t understand people who do something good because it’s right.”
In steps a savior, Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), a suspiciously upbeat zillionaire who runs a giant telecommunications company with his watchful sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener). A longtime superhero admirer, Winston — Win for short — has both the means and a plan to relegitimize superheroes in the eyes of the public, one that involves putting surveillance cameras in their suits. As the words “superhero lives matter” formed in my head, I wondered, and not for the first time while watching this movie, what exactly Mr. Bird was trying to say as he gestured toward reality while only tentatively engaging it.
These references to the real world pop up every so often like teasingly, briefly hoisted red flags. They flutter a bit, and then Mr. Bird gets back to the main event, which mostly involves the Incredibles agreeing to Win’s plan and all the busy, cartoonish rest. The story cleaves in two, with Elastigirl, a.k.a. Helen Parr, out in the field fighting crime and Bob at home taking care of the kids. The new division of family labor is hard on Bob — their daughter, Violet (Sarah Vowell), has boy problems, for starters — but his Mr. Mom bumbling predictably gives way to heroic fatherhood. In between feedings and putting out fires, Bob teaches his son Dash (Huckleberry Milner) how to conquer new math and, better yet, seeks help caring for the baby, Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile).
Jack-Jack is the burbling, gurgling cherry on this confection whether he’s toddling through the house or tussling with a wily raccoon. (Mr. Bird’s nostalgic side is evident in the name Jack-Jack, which evokes the epithet John-John given to John F. Kennedy Jr. when he was a toddler in the White House.) It’s a blast when Jack-Jack spends time with a super-suit designer, Edna Mode (voiced by Mr. Bird) — this irresistible duo could easily spin into their own sequel nirvana — but it’s Jack-Jack’s kinetic dust-up with the raccoon that gives the movie its most delightful moments as baby and beast zip, zing and ping like Tom and Jerry in gloriously controlled chaos.
Part of what makes Jack-Jack’s scramble with the (conveniently clawless) raccoon so pleasurable is its playfulness and relatively small scale. The scene reveals much about Jack-Jack’s abilities, but crucially, it doesn’t directly advance the larger story and isn’t weighted down by the big-bigger-biggest blockbuster-action imperative that often finds directors (Mr. Bird included) trying to top not only other movies but also, scene to scene, themselves. Jack-Jack’s raccoon time is pure play, which is something that “Incredibles 2” — with its self-aware political comments, its Bruckheimer-esque fireballs and all its locked, loaded guns — could use more of.
Too often Mr. Bird seems to think that he needs to say something to the adults in the room, including those critics who have sniffed notes of Ayn Rand perfuming his work. (At least one plot point seems like a direct refutation of that reading.) In “Incredibles 2,” the government can’t be relied on, but it also, until recently, had been footing the bill for the Incredibles. And while the family certainly is special, as the movie underscores, the Incredibles don’t want to withdraw from the world. They want to save it and, importantly, save it together. It’s a hot mess, populated by looters and the usual moochers, but its un-incredibles also give the Incredibles purpose.
The family that fights together remains the steadily throbbing, unbreakable heart of “Incredibles 2,” even when Bob and Helen swap traditional roles. There’s something too self-conscious — overcompensating much? — about Bob’s taking on the part of the stay-at-home father and Helen’s embarking on her solo adventures. Mr. Bird even throws in a line about strong women. Plunking the Incredibles down in the early 1960s informed the first movie’s graphic midcentury cartoon style. It also allowed Mr. Bird to stick to a comfortably old-fashioned vision of the world, one that he is redrawing one baby superhero step at a time.
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hours 58 minutes.