Monday, January 14, 2019

"The Incredibles 2" and "Hotel Transylvania 3"

The Incredibles are back! Everyone's favorite super-powered family is adjusting to a new dynamic, after Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) gets a new job with an industrialist, Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who wants to bring back superheroes via a splashy PR campaign. This leaves Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) to look after Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huckleberry Milner) and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile). Childcare should be a breeze for a superhero, right?

The "Incredibles" sequel is very good. However, it doesn't come close to matching up to the 2004 original, which I consider one of the high water marks of modern animation. The stakes in the new movie are lower, the storytelling more messy, and the social satire and commentary are noticeably less thoughtful. Brad Bird has revealed that he lost an entire year of development time when the project was fast-tracked, which probably accounts for some of the differences. The dialogue is still refreshingly smart, and I like a lot of the new characters, but the film feels very rough around the edges. Notably, one major character seems to be missing an emotional arc entirely, and another frequently feels like an afterthought.

As spectacle, however, "Incredibles 2" is a blast. CGI animation has seen massive technological improvements since the first film, and the sequel benefits in every way. Individual action sequences are amazing, especially Elastigirl's chase and fight scenes with a new villain named the Screenslaver. Jack-Jack also becomes a scene-stealer, as his array of new powers allow him to get into all kinds of trouble. His brawl with a raccoon and his encounter with Edna Mode are both hysterical, and my favorite parts of the film. Though "The Incredibles" has the most mature and realistic characters out of all the PIXAR creations, they work best when they fully embrace being cartoons. And they do here, frequently. So while this adventure isn't as well-rounded and polished as the first, it's just as much fun to watch.

I also enjoy how self-aware the movie is. Brad Bird actively avoids typical cliches and tired conventions. He also continually re-emphasizes that this is a family film. That doesn't mean the material is dumbed down, or that it doesn't get dark and intense when it needs to, but rather that there's something for everyone. Problems are relatable, and handled in healthy, realistic ways. Mr. Incredible deals with caregiver burnout and resentment (but doesn't blame his wife). Violet is devastated by teenage love woes (but is only briefly angry at her father for interfering). Dash has poor impulse control. Jack-Jack has poor control, period. The adults have adult concerns and have serious adult conversations addressing them. However, the kids get their turn in the spotlight, and the movie doesn't lose anything when they do.

Now, on to the latest "Hotel Transylvania" movie, "Summer Vacation." I wrote this one off sight unseen at the beginning of last year, but it turned out to be a perfectly good cartoon feature, loaded with sight gags and clever ideas. I like it better than either of the prior installments, because it totally embraces being a zany cartoon, and commits to delivering a good time. The plot is simple stuff, but provides a lot of opportunity for hijinks - the whole gang goes on a cruise and Drac (Adam Sandler) falls in love with the ship's captain, a human named Erica (Kathryn Hahn). But alas, she's secretly the granddaughter of Drac's longtime rival, the monster hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan). Along the way, there are stops at an underwater volcano and the lost city of Atlantis, along with plenty of cruise ship chaos.

The "Hotel Transylvania" movies have turned out to be some of the most watchable animated movies currently being made, largely due to the animation. Genndy Tartakovsky and his team make sure that their characters are always very visually dynamic and comedically expressive in the grand tradition of the Looney Toons and Max Fleischer shorts. This installment doubles down on some tired elements, like ending with a giant dance party, but there's a lot of creativity and inventiveness on display too. There are lots of running jokes like the cruise ship porters all being fish, the werewolf couple's swarm of destructive pups, and a slime monster family. My favorite sequence is Drac and friends being stuck on an airplane being piloted and crewed by gremlins.

This one will play better to younger audiences, but I was surprised at how positively I felt toward "Summer Vacation" in the end. We need more cartoons that really take advantage of being cartoons.


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