Sequels are not easy to make. Actually, let me rephrase that. They may be easier to make than original films but challenging to make well. Although characters, their personalities, and the world their stories take place in have already mostly been created, providing a fresh perspective that is not simply a retread of the first film is often difficult. It is why we have many sequels that do not capture the creativity and ingenuity of their predecessors. I had the chance to hear from Incredibles 2 director Brad Bird on why he is making a sequel.
Pixar has a fairly good track record with sequels, having released incredible sequels such as Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, as well as the well-received Monsters University (a prequel) and Finding Dory. At the same time, the strength of the studio’s brand was built on the back of films that were mostly original (and stunningly well-made), which is why there seems to be an outcry every time a Pixar sequel is announced.
If there is one film from the studio that many have been asking a sequel for, it is The Incredibles, Brad Bird’s first directorial effort for the animation house. I frequently wondered why this film had people asking for more: was it that the film is based in the superhero genre, that is bursting with sequels, threequels, and beyond?; could it be that the first film ended with a seeming cliffhanger that fans wanted to see resolved?; was the first film so good that audiences wanted more stories that spent time with this family?. On a recent trip to Pixar, I attended a discussion with Bird, who said that he and his team had a story to tell for Incredibles 2, and that was it.
Last month, I visited Pixar’s campus in Emeryville, CA to get a behind-the-scenes look at Incredibles 2. I had the opportunity to participate in sessions where we learned about the process to bring this film to life, a film that will be released almost 14 years after the family of supers first arrived in theaters. In one of these sessions, Brad Bird discussed his motivation to make the film. He said:
Many sequels are cash-grabs and there’s a saying in the business that I can’t stand, where they go, (doing an impression1) “You don’t make another one, you’re leaving money on the table.” Money on the table is not what makes me get up in the morning. Making something that people are gonna enjoy 100 years from now is what gets me up. So if it were a cash-grab, we would not have taken 14 years. It makes no financial sense to wait this long. It’s sheerly we had a story that we wanted to tell.
Bird is entirely correct when he raises the point of the sequel’s release timing. In the film industry, among major studios, there is pressure to produce blockbusters that bring in major profits. The worry among these studios is that if you were to wait too long to make a sequel, the popularity for the characters may wane and you run the risk of “leaving money on the table.” It is the basis for why we see a standard timeline of 2-3 years between most films in a franchise. I do not believe that this way of thinking is fundamentally right. If you have a film that is not that great, to begin with, the risk that audiences will not be there for a sequel is higher than when you make a great film that leaves viewers wanting more.
Here, Bird is commenting on the resistance within Pixar to “churn out” sequels like a factory, just for the sake of printing money – because the studio could if it wanted to. Is it possible that Pixar would have made more money on Incredibles 2 if it were released three years after the first film’s release? Sure. If it released Inside Out 2 and Coco 2 in the next few years, there is a higher chance of those films making more money than original films with new characters. That does not mean that is what will always happen, though. Pixar has demonstrated many times that a great story (like the aforementioned Coco) with positive word-of-mouth will still bring in interested viewers in droves. On the other side of this argument, there have been examples of sequels that were released after a significant number of years, and could arguably point to nostalgia as a large motivator for large returning audiences. Again, Bird is saying that he does not care about any of that.
The director is clearly pointing to his motivator for making the film. “Making something people are gonna enjoy 100 years from now” – he is trying to make a piece of art that will stand the test of time (just like the first film has remained one of the best superhero, spy, and above all, family films since its release). Artists are not solely motivated by how much money they will make when their creations are released to the masses. It sounds like Incredibles 2 is in the hands of a capable artist.
So what is the story that Bird wanted to tell? And why did he decide to pick up the sequel’s storyline right after the first film? After all, many sequels and prequels age up (or age down) characters, as they strive to tell a story with a different perspective. Bird said:
I thought about aging everybody the way everybody does, and then I thought, “No, that sucks.”
He flirted with the idea of jumping the story forward, but he was brought back to what made the first film so captivating – the characters and the powers that symbolized their role in the family, as well as their personality. He describes how he arrived at the powers for each member of the Parr family in the first film:
I picked powers based on who they were in the family. Men are always expected to be strong so I had Bob have strength. Women, mothers, are always pulled in a million different directions so I had (Helen) be elastic. Teenagers are insecure and defensive so I had Violet have forcefields and invisibility. 10-year-olds are energy balls that can’t be stopped, and babies are unknowns – maybe they have no powers, maybe they have all powers, we don’t know. That’s what Jack-Jack was – he was seemingly the first “normal” one in the family and then at the end of Incredibles, you find out that he’s the wild card, and that he’s sort of the Swiss-army knife of powers. And that, to me, reminds me of the way babies can grasp languages really easily and adopt them easily.
The symbolism present in each family member’s powers is one of the reasons why the first film is as good as it is. If you had not previously heard the reason for why these powers were chosen, your mind has likely been blown. So much of the complexity of these characters is the representation of their powers. Bird did not want to leave that behind, just for the sake of telling a story in a sequel. He added:
(It) changes if you age the characters up. The insight into those periods of your life and those particular perspectives disappear once you age them up. I’m not interested in a college age Jack-Jack, I’m just not. I’m interested in my sons growing up.
Bird is a director with a clear vision. You can hear it in his voice as you listen to him talk about the film he is making. The approximately 30 minutes of the film that I have seen gives me genuine hope in that vision.
That vision can be seen in full when Incredibles 2 is released in theaters on June 15th.
Note: This article is part of a series covering a trip to Pixar, where Incredibles 2 was discussed in-depth. There will be more on the way. Click this link to see all the stories published so far.
- Brad Bird’s impressions are simultaneously excellent and hilarious. He did a few impressions during this session and I want to share the audio just because the impressions are so good. There is a reason why he ended up being the voice of Edna Mode. ↩