With Toy Story 2, Finding Dory and now Incredibles 2, Disney Pixar has perfected the key ingredient to making a sequel: finding a reason for it to exist. A new story to tell with the existing cast of characters, one that comes organically from the established themes. Toy Story 2 wasn’t “further adventures with the toys you love!” It had a new narrative question to ask, “what happens when the child doesn’t want to play with the toy anymore? Can these toys afford to define themselves through their owner?” Finding Dory, while not as good as the rest, still had the guts to tackle difficult questions of what it takes to maintain a friendship with someone who is mentally ill, and how that ill person feels when they think they’re at fault. Even the relatively weak prequel Monsters University had something at least mildly interesting to work with, “how did two such polar opposite people come to be such close friends?” One of the things that sets Cars 2 apart from these is that its conflicts were manufactured, and so it couldn’t justify its existence.
Brad Bird, director of 2004’s The Incredibles, famously said he would only make a sequel when he was convinced he had a story worth telling. True to his word, he waited over a decade. And it was so worth it. On a personal level, the first movie is about a family where every member (except Jack-Jack) feels dissatisfied with something, which is leading to growing tensions. On a larger thematic level, it was about what makes a person special or unique, and whether having an unfair advantage over others means superpowered people (or supers) should restrain themselves. (Yes, this has, over the years, led to criticisms of the movie having a capitalist agenda.)
Incredibles 2, on a personal level, tells the Parr family that everything has a price. At the end of the first movie, a decision seems to have been reached, where these supers are going to live more freely, be who they are. The sequel asks them to face the consequences of this decision. Bob Parr (Mr Incredible), voiced by Craig T Nelson, must learn to take responsibility for raising his kids, a responsibility he was running away from last time. Helen Parr (Elastigirl), voiced by the brilliant Holly Hunter, must learn to let go of that responsibility and trust Bob to handle it, so she can do what she needs to in order to improve public perception of superheroes. Violet, like in the first film, is dealing with high school problems, but this time they stem directly from the family’s change in status quo. Jack-Jack must fight a trash panda. Edna must add another dimension to her already jaw-dropping degree of awesomeness. Frozone must continue to be as Sam Jackson as possible in a PG movie. Dash doesn’t really have an arc but he’s having so much fun that it’s okay. The kid spent the first movie trying to run without inhibitions, let him breathe a little!
But while the film works at every level where it comes to characterisation and character growth, it falls a little short of the original’s thematic depth. But again, what’s crucial when looking at Pixar sequels is that (apart from Cars 2,) when their sequels are flawed, it’s only because their execution of their concept was flawed, not because they didn’t have a worthy concept to begin with. The Incredibles showed us a world where the world decided they didn’t need superheroes, that they caused more harm than good. However, thematically as it went along, the focus was on the supers, on individualism, and on what this change in the law does to them. The movie didn’t really analyse the effect superheroes have on the world, and whether people were right in denouncing them, leaving the door wide open for the sequel to attempt that, and to its credit, that’s exactly was Incredibles 2 tries to do. So yes, the execution wasn’t exactly great. The Incredibles used its villain Syndrome to provide counterpoints to its heroes’ beliefs, and Incredibles 2 does the same with its villain, Screenslaver. The difference being that Syndrome was just a terrific character overall, and with his motivations and beliefs and personality, one of the best supervillains out there, whereas Screenslaver is, quite simply, a far less interesting character. And the weaker character is a large part of why the question of “are superheroes actually good for the world?” could not get much more depth than a Powerpuff Girls episode. But just the fact that the question was raised tells us that Pixar knows what they’re doing, and leaves us with a theme we can ponder for ourselves.
Now another difference between the two instalments is that the motivations of the Parrs individually were directly tied to the movie’s overarching theme of specialness. Maybe if Elastigirl in Incredibles 2 was more emotionally conflicted about her place in the world, (“to fix the law, I gotta break it!”) we would be too.
But the fact is, Disney Pixar never (other than Cars 2) tells a story the artists don’t feel the need to tell. Finding Dory came 13 years after the original, Incredibles 2 took 14. So while a movie like Toy Story 3 might have provided a perfect wrap up for the trilogy, and we might all be apprehensive for Toy Story 4, and reasonably so, I would argue that they have given us enough reason to give them the benefit of the doubt. If Pixar thinks there is a worthy story still to be told with Woody and company, there probably is.