Monday, March 3, 2014

Despicable Me (2010) / Despicable Me 2 (2013)

They may be odd-looking, and you can't understand anything they say, but the yellow, pill-shaped minions in Despicable Me and its sequel are money-making gold.

Despite the films' marketing and merchandising, the films aren't all about the goofy little sidekicks (they're getting their own spinoff, due in 2015). Rather, both films focus on the adventures of Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), a brilliant super-villain who finds three young girls in his care. The films, produced by animation studio Illumination Entertainment and directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, then follow the requisite narratives that family-friendly animated films all-too-often follow.

More after the jump.

Despicable Me is the better of the two films. The plot involves Gru's grand scheme to steal the moon in an attempt to out-do a younger, flashier, and more successful rival, Vector (voiced by Jason Segel). After Vector steals his shrink ray, Gru adopts three girls - Margo (voice of Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (voice of Dana Gaier), and Agnes (voice of Elsie Fischer) - as a ploy to get it back. Naturally, he develops a bond with the girls the more time he spends with them, and has to decide whether he should continue villainy or settle down and be a father.

There's nothing terribly new or exciting in that narrative, and the ending is exactly what you would expect it to be. Yet the film is nonetheless charming, thanks to its embrace of it's (mild) deviousness. This is a film set in a world where there are plenty of supervillains, but apparently no superheroes. The bad guys commit crimes that don't physically harm anyone; in fact, most of Gru's schemes involve stealing landmarks that aren't even that major, such as the Statue of Liberty…of Las Vegas. Set to a chirpy, 1970s-inspired soundtrack by Pharrell Williams, there's a great bit of fun in Gru's flaunting of his "evil," and the filmmakers wisely embrace the fact that we know that he'll ultimately embrace being good. It's not exactly great, but it's better than average, and it amuses and charms like a child who knows he's misbehaving but does so without really hurting anyone. It's good, safe animated fun.

The same can't really be said about the sequel, Despicable Me 2. Here, Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to track down the thief who stole a highly dangerous serum. He's paired with one of the AVL's newest agents, Lucy (voice of Kristen Wiig), and planted in a shopping mall, where he suspects that the owner of a Mexican restaurant, Eduardo (voice of Benjamin Bratt), may not only be the thief but also El Macho, a notorious supervillain who was rumored to have died years earlier. On top of all this, the girls are encouraging Gru to date, while Margo is beginning to find an interest in dating as well.

Once again, there's not a single story beat here that isn't completely expected, and every twist and turn in the narrative can be seen coming a mile away. However, where the first film had playful impishness on its side, this one has a very dull gentleness. Gru is no longer a bad guy, and as a result he's much less interesting as a character, with nothing new really creating conflict within him. Though he's ostensibly tempted with returning to his villainous ways, the moment is over before it even began; there's absolutely no indication that he would ever even consider the possibility. Unlike the first film, he's not torn between his family and his work. There's zero conflict for him, which only makes the more predictable and cliche portions of the story that much more problematic.

A big factor in this is that the minions are much more foregrounded this time around, but even the filmmakers aren't sure of why beyond their inexplicable popularity. In fact, it seems like they knew they needed to feature them more, but aren't sure what they should be doing. Case in point: a second-half development involving the minions and the stolen serum provides a great opportunity for some Gremlins-style mischief, but the film whiffs it with a chaotic action sequence that never takes advantage of its setup. Instead, throughout the film the minions just kind of bumble around, comic relief that feels forced rather than amusing.

Ultimately, success has been this franchise's worst enemy. The first film sustained its clever premise with unique charm and winking bad behavior, but by the second film it's been stretched too thin and yielded diminishing returns creatively. Of course, this isn't the end: on top of the minions getting a spinoff, a third chapter is expected in 2017. There's no stopping the little guys from global domination. It's too bad it couldn't be more interesting.

Despicable Me: B-
Despicable Me 2: C

*Somehow, Despicable Me 2 managed to score an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. Granted, this year wasn't particularly bountiful in terms of animated films, and the film's massive box office probably contributed to the desire to recognize it, but over the not-great-but-better-than-this Monsters University? I'm not sure I understand it.

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