Of all the achievements Incredibles 2 pulls off with aplomb during its nearly two-hour runtime, the most surprising is a justification for its very existence. When Pixar announced a follow-up to its heroic masterpiece, the general sentiment was hardly celebratory. At best, the news was met with a cautious shrug. Here we go again, yet another Pixar sequel (hello, Cars 3). At worst, fans were downright grim. After all, a botched sequel might retroactively tarnish immense goodwill and a sterling legacy (hello, The Godfather Part III).

The thrilling, balletic action sequence that opens Incredibles 2 puts to rest any doubt. Such hand-wringing suddenly feels misplaced and misguided. It’s clear we’re back in the hands of a master. And, as the film unfolds, that master shows he’s in top form. I use the F-word, film, deliberately, since this isn’t a mere popcorn picture, even though it abundantly delivers as a summertime entertainment. With Incredibles 2, writer-director Brad Bird weaves marvelous, whiz-bang set pieces into a deep and complex work, a domestic drama that sparkles with visual and verbal wit.

If all this sounds too grandiose and exaggerated for a “cartoon,” it’s only because Bird (sadly) isn’t yet a household name like Steven Spielberg. No American filmmaker working in animation today can approach the artistry of his towering hat trick: The Iron Giant (1999), The Incredibles (2004), and Ratatouille (2007). That trio proved emotional truth could be wrung from stories marketed to children and executed without live actors. The Iron Giant, in particular, was a two-dimensional proof of concept that paved the way for the pathos and sophistication now synonymous with the Pixar brand.

Incredibles 2 at once feels like a summation of past glories, a culmination of recurring themes, and (yes) an incredible breakthrough for Bird as a filmmaker. When I take a step back and recount the narrative ground it covers, with ease, you’d think I’m describing a somber, off-kilter independent film. A mother is consumed with the guilt of abandoning her family to pursue a successful career. Her spouse grapples with his inadequacies as a househusband and former breadwinner. Their introverted daughter struggles with the ins and outs of teen romance. Their adolescent son is frustrated both by the status quo and his math homework. Their bouncing baby boy may, in fact, be a creature from another dimension (a running joke that pays increasingly higher dividends).

Interiority is regularly made explicit in what, on the surface, is a rollicking superhero adventure. Bird’s genius is a knack for smuggling grand subjects, like bitter pills wrapped in slices of American cheese, into scene after scene of cinematic bliss. You stand in awe of his kinetic acuity. No one stages white-knuckled calamities with such elegance, within a dazzling retro-futurist setting, no less. But smaller, quirkier asides are his trademark, the wonderfully comedic flourishes lesser filmmakers either approximate or neglect to include at all. All the while, humanity is investigated with the irreverence and solemnity of a wizened rabbi.

Bird’s characters are fully realized, on the page and onscreen. Helen (Holly Hunter, whose voice recalls knotty wood) is a feminist icon grounded in tradition. Bob (a woeful Craig T. Nelson) represents a version of masculinity that’s equally contemporary and neutered. Their staggeringly wealthy benefactors, the sibling duo of Winston and Evelyn Deavor (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener, both excellent), offer conflicting sociopolitical viewpoints, of bourgeois optimism and bohemian pessimism, a messy mix of left-leaning ideologies that starkly contrast the Randian overtones of the first Incredibles picture. The breakout performance, here again, comes from Bird himself. Whenever she appears, his Edna Mode – a firecracker of personality sporting a severe, jet-black bob – hijacks and further elevates an already fabulous film.

Incredibles 2 isn’t only a fine Pixar installment, or merely a great superhero tale. It’s both, and then some. From start to finish, here is a sequel that builds on the brilliance of its predecessor, which it then surpasses by a wide margin. This is primarily a film about the pitfalls of adulthood, the constant second-guessing that comes with parenthood, marriage, and, really, any human relationship that matters.

When this chugging engine of joy concluded during my screening, a roomful of film critics, typically a tough crowd to please, burst into applause. Not bad for a mere cartoon. And proof, perhaps, that other superheroes should be held to a higher standard.

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