Movies on Trial: Deconstructing the Sequel

Words by Alisha Rao

WARNING: Spoilers on Toy Story 2, Finding Dory, and Incredibles 1&2

In the first piece of this series, I talked about reboots, how we see so many of them nowadays, and what that could mean. In this piece, I want to investigate what makes a good, mediocre, and ‘lost potential’ sequel, and why that matters.

Firstly, how exactly do I define a ‘sequel’? I am defining it as a story that exists within the same universe as its predecessor, possessing new stakes, cast additions, and new locations. This does not mean every character returns, or that the core character(s) reprise their roles as the crux of the narrative, but the foundation is ‘consistency’. All the factors that I believe make a good sequel are dependent on being consistent.

Now, what do I define as ‘good’? This word has two spheres in the context of movies; succession and narrative. Succession refers to how well it maintains the consistency and logic of its predecessor; narrative refers to the story itself, whether it preserves the tones and themes of its predecessor and how different the story is on its own because again, consistency is the key. Naturally, it is difficult to satisfy all these requirements, but I find myself needing these checkboxes. Whether it is a cerebral, complex story, or completely brainless, I like having these criteria for the movies I watch, but I am aware that this piece is very subjective in nature because of said criteria. For a change of pace, this critique won’t be reviewing live-action movies; today, we will dive into the world of animated movies.

Let’s take a look at what I think is a subjectively good animated sequel; Toy Story 2 (1999). For me, I liked it much better than Toy Story (1995), a sentiment that has not changed since I was a kid. Now, the first was truly amazing, but Sid’s toys scared the living daylights out of me, and now, they’re less scary but still very creepy, which somewhat impeded my overall memory and enjoyment of the movie. Nevertheless, it was amazing as a movie that started a franchise. Toy Story 2 was not only a great follow-up, but a good contrast, as the tone is not quite as dark, and every character gets an elevated role in the quest to save Woody, the main protagonist, (in the form of a cowboy doll) from being sold by a toy maniac named Al, while Woody contemplates his place in life as toy once separated from his friends.

What remains consistent? That creepy aspect (of Sid repurposing and abusing his toys) is not retained, but the theme of these toys meeting an unwanted end remains the same. Additionally, the dynamic between Woody and space ranger toy Buzz Lightyear becomes more lighthearted, as well as more grounded, which acts as a succession from their character arc resolution at the end of the first movie. Toy Story focused on these two setting aside their differences, wherein they competed for the affection of their owner Andy, and now had a stronger foundation as friends in the successor. New characters were not frivolous additions, so they served a greater purpose of also wanting a home like any other toy would, seen in the cowgirl doll Jessie and the horse Bullseye. Toy Story 2 remains consistent in the way that us, as viewers, delve into the minds of toys and the adventures they have, while also giving us a new take on the dangers these toys have to go through. You grow attached to these characters, and this movie rewards that attachment by having the characters develop and grow.

Now, let’s take a look at a mediocre sequel. These are sequels I believe make up for having a slightly formulaic format by maintaining originality in other aspects. Finding Dory (2016) is a good example of this case. Finding Nemo (2003) is an amazing movie, one that I still quote lines from and rewatch with new insights each time; for the longest time, I didn’t think it needed a sequel. Then, before the movie’s release, this clip of baby Dory single-handedly made me excited for the film. As silly as that sounds, I almost needed a reason to see it, rather than genuinely wanting to see it as an initial reaction, since I thought it could never amount to Finding Nemo. I put that mentality aside, since that is such a high bar to exceed, and decided to enjoy the movie for what it was, which I did.

It is consistent with one of the themes from its predecessor; making sure everyone is where they belong, and that they have a place to call home (as a side note, Pixar really emphasizes this theme of belonging, which I find interesting). In the case of fish, they belong in the ocean, and not in a plastic bag. Dory’s character exploration was delved into much more, which really aided the story, and like Nemo, Dory had an identity to reclaim; this sets up a good narrative. Dory became core to the progression and resolution of the first film that she is deserving of this exploration, so it doesn’t come off as an extraneous sequel. Notably, the subtle commentary on certain mental conditions finds itself in new characters. Destiny is a near-sighted whale shark, while Bailey, a beluga whale, is convinced he cannot echolocate (the two effectively share psychological issues about their capabilities as aquatic animals), and finally Hank the ‘septopus’, nicknamed that for having one less tentacle. The first film addresses Nemo’s permanently damaged fin, the anxiety and paranoia Marlin develops as a widower, and Dory’s short-term memory loss, so these characters are distinct from the core trio. Like its predecessor, these traits are not ever glorified or used entirely for comedic value; to a degree, Finding Nemo treated Dory’s fumbling and forgetful nature as somewhat comedic, but not to an extent that makes a joke out of the condition (which Finding Dory did with Bailey’s character as well). Destiny and Bailey both escape the Marine Life Institute despite their fears, and Hank learns to leave his life of solitude, reflecting their growth and illustrating the most important aspect of all; they are not defined by what makes them ‘quirky’. Dory is not defined by her memory loss, and her finding her parents is a testament to that character development (going against the odds), in the same way that Destiny and Bailey have to build more faith in themselves before making their prison break and coping with their quirks. This movie may not amount to its predecessor, but like Finding Nemo, Finding Dory is a great movie for this commentary and enjoyment.

Finally, let’s take a look at a ‘lost potential’ sequel; this refers to movies that had a chance to be a good follow-up, but either ended up being too formulaic, had many inconsistencies, or other factors that are detrimental to a good sequel. To preface the movie of discussion, one Pixar movie I love is The Incredibles (2004); a story about a family of superheroes, forced to conceal their powers in a society that discourages it, coming together to fight a common evil threatening supers and the mass populace. There is an emphasis on reality over fantasy shown through Bob and Helen Parr’s (Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl) characters, where his nostalgic desire to be a superhero directly contrasts her initial steadfast approach to ‘be normal’ and raise their children as such. This ideological contrast effectively sets in motion the story, and their consistent involvement in moving the plot forward makes this a very engaging movie. One of the best parts about the first movie was the way it introduced its antagonist. Clearly foreshadowed, treated like a MacGuffin, and finally imbued with a solid motive, Syndrome is a great twist villain. You may not entirely sympathize with him, but his cause makes sense, making him a great antithesis to the idealistic Mr. Incredible. Syndrome’s motive comes from when he was younger (which we see), directly rejected by Mr. Incredible and scolded for trying to help him catch a criminal. Feeling crushed by his hero as a child permanently impacted his view on heroes; Bob’s behaviour was an inadvertent catalyst, which sets up a twist you don’t see coming. Needless to say, this movie has so much going for it, and for it to get a sequel was a big deal, 14 years in the making.

Incredibles 2 (2018) is a sequel I consider one that has lost potential.

Helen Parr, as Elastigirl, is given the chance to revamp the image of superheroes in society (after an incident involving her family’s reckless use of their powers), while having to combat the rising threat of a mysterious vigilante known as Screenslaver. The first issue with this sequel is the number of inconsistencies, which I will discuss. There are no new threats differing formulaically from its predecessor, which ends up retrograding the progress and development of certain characters. First, I will discuss the Parr kids, Violet and Dash. The first movie uses Violet’s superpowers as a metaphor for her social anxiety, her ‘closed-book’ nature, and how the hairband she later acquires symbolizes her self-confidence, no longer hidden from everyone. Dash’s powers were a metaphor for his desire to be free, unrestricted by society; once him and Violet were forced to fend for themselves in the face of real danger, he learned the application of his powers and to not be frivolous with these applications (in contrast to him thumb-tacking his teacher’s seat). In the second movie, he has a lot less presence and becomes a bit more uni-dimensional. Violet reverts back to being awkward and nervous in the second movie (in a stereotypical teenage way), when it was clearly established in the predecessor she was overcoming that hurdle. Adolescence is what it is, but Violet was always more mature and shown to be above this behaviour. There is also a scene where she tells Bob it was better when Helen when was at home, but I will touch on that later. The movie’s sum of its parts is somewhat saved by Jack-Jack, who adds a new level of entertainment, and I loved every scene with him. However, it does not save the movie as a whole, and thus it does not succeed well as a sequel. What about the antagonist in the sequel? Winston Deavor, the entrepreneur set on re-establishing heroes in society, becomes the red herring of the second movie. It is revealed his sister Evelyn is Screenslaver (operating remotely), acting on her own without Winston’s knowledge and possessing retained hatred towards supers whom she blamed for her father’s murder. I believe in the idea that subversion does not automatically equate to good plot or character development if it isn’t warranted. The antagonist problem of Incredibles 2 exists for this reason. In Evelyn’s case, there isn’t enough foreshadowing to show why her motive makes sense, which also doesn’t line up with her brother’s intentions, despite how close they seem to be. Her motive is rooted from something beyond Helen’s control, and in turn Helen has no direct role or complicity in what pushes the narrative. This means it could have been any other random superhero to fill this role, a motive that was not a product of the property damage the Parr family caused at the beginning of the film.

Finally, there’s Bob and Helen. Bob was the ‘employed super’ in the first movie, but due to his general recklessness, Winston chose Helen over him to be the face of his project. I am not against this, in fact I looked forward to this aspect initially. The problem this plot created is by switching the parents as the main super, Helen gets to do the action-packed work that comes with being a super, while Bob is reduced to a stay-at-home dad who struggles to cope with the mundane … again. Their ideologies don’t clash as predominantly as they did in the first movie, and the lack of that clashing compromises what could have been a good narrative. As I mentioned earlier, their ideological differences had a direct impact on the story, but the sequel does not allow them to have those differences, instead framing any arguments as a result of the role switch. Bob is shown to be the kind of parent that can’t keep the peace the moment the mother leaves the house, which the scene with Violet demonstrates. Jack-Jack helped make things more enjoyable, but most scenes with him and Bob are good examples of this stereotyping. It is mostly played off for comedy, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing if they treated Helen’s character the same way in the first movie. The events of the sequel are supposed to take place right after the first movie, but very little remains of the developed characters we saw in The Incredibles.

So what does all of this reviewing address? I picked animated movies to discuss because they have an ability to reach all demographics in a unique way. This doesn’t necessarily apply to all animated movies, but the point is the way we enjoy movies now may be a result of animated movies we liked at a younger age, or that as we grow older, we can view such movies with new insights and a different perspective. Ultimately, the core of this analysis is not only dependent on consistency, but also on growth. I didn’t mention Toy Story 3 (2010), which is a fantastic sequel (and also makes me too emotional so I’d rather not go there), that truly represents this idea of growth. It takes full advantage of the universe it exists within (where toys are emotionally attached to humans); I will never forget Woody saying “so long, partner” as him and the other toys watch Andy drive away for college. It is an amazing sequel and addition to the franchise because by then, the animation improved, the humans had grown up, and the toys developed an established camaraderie that had built up since the first movie.

To sum it all up, sequels can be enjoyable and also disinteresting for a number of reasons. Investigating why that could be was something that piqued my interest, as someone that easily becomes attached to movies and potentially what follows that one movie. Reboots can suffer from being unoriginal, but sequels only suffer if they forget what made them good and unique in the first place, because sequels for the most part at least come from an idea that was once original. Recycling is good for the environment, but not always in movies.

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