Despicable Me 2 (2013) – Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin (Dir.), Steve Carrell, Kristen Wiig, Benjamin Bratt, Russell Brand, Steve Coogan, an adorable child, and the directors mumbling French gibberish
Inevitability is an odd thing. There are some choices that, though we avoid like some kind of bubonic plague, manage to follow us throughout our lives, dogging us at every turn, ready to infect us with pus-spewing boils. They become the emotionless body snatchers, one by one removing the populace from their willful ignorance and turning them into one of the horde. For so long I was the Donald Sutherland, the Naomi Watts, if you will, of this horrendous trend, this insidious reign of unmitigated mediocrity, this scattegorically-obsessed prepackaged product designed to melt the minds of children into a susceptible mush of malleable marketability. I am, of course, talking about non-Pixar digital animation.
Yes, ring the snob alarm, if you please. Douse me in two day old caviar and flat champagne. Perhaps beat me with a Prada bag, whatever you please. But, yes, I hold children’s movies in extremely high regard. Children are simultaneously the dullest and the smartest creatures to ever spread across the face of the earth. Their minds and imaginations are, for the most part, blank slates ready to be sketched upon. I firmly believe the media we consume from an early age directly influences whether that sketch on that slate is something more akin to a Rembrandt or one of those things that a 3 year-old hands you that looks like a sausage covered in hair and the words “tHis my doGG”. For example, while watching this movie, there was a child behind me who spoke almost every line of the film in unison with it until his father begged him to stop. He’d seen it once. Was this child Rain Man? Fuck no. He’s a child! I still have awkward sound cues and snippets of dialogue from The Nightmare Before Christmas branded into my memory. Children are sponges and, if they even half-enjoy something, they will gorge upon its contents like a rabid Furby.
That being said, in the most pompous fashion possible, I’ve been in an unadulterated love affair with Pixar since Toy Story 2. Not only is their animation and direction fucking amaze balls, but their stories and themes strike deep at the heart of myriad emotional trials and tribulations. We have the tale of an overbearing father learning to let go while his son realizes he isn’t as weak as he thought (Finding Nemo), how to let go of our childhood and pass it on to the next generation (Toy Story 3), the dangers of pollution and the friendship of cockroaches (Wall-E) and how to be a really fast car that talks (full disclaimer: I’ve never seen Cars). Basically, with a few hiccups ignored here and there (I probably won’t be seeing Monsters University any time soon) their record is almost immaculate, culminating with one of the most heartbreaking tales to ever be told in 10 minutes, Up.
So, after years of poopooing anything digitally animated lacking the Pixar stamp, turning my nose up at such harrowing classics as A Shark’s Tale, Over the Hedge, Shrek 4: The One with JT and Ice Age 12: Now With More Rappers, I finally gave in and watched Despicable Me. Immediately, it is riddled with symptoms of lackluster kids movies. We have a mainly R&B soundtrack put together by a talented and completely child-unfriendly artist (Pharrell Williams), a celebrity cast that looks like the guest list to a Woody Allen Young Woman Appreciation Party (and all of them timidly accepted) as well as already dated, over-the-head pop culture references that no child would ever understand (there is a joke about Lehman Brothers. I shit you not. What child, Doogie Houser aside, knows who the fuck Lehman Brothers is? I barely do. Shit!) Honestly, Despicable Me was utterly charming, for the most part. Yes, the minions, spouting their French nonsense (is that redundant?) while giggling and blowing each other up is chuckle-worthy. And, okay, yes, I let out a ‘Ha’ when Russell Brand’s Dr. Nefario creates a Fart Gun after mishearing directions. AND HOLY SHIT, AGNES IS FUCKING ADORABLE.
Here’s my issue with Despicable Me: everything that isn’t the main characters. They spent a great deal of time and energy upping the cuddle-factor, making Steve Carrell’s Gru a sort of Beauty and the Beast-like anti-hero that, for all of his nefarious deeds, like that one magical hooker, has a heart of gold. It’s everything else that’s the problem. The plot concerns Gru trying to get a loan from a bank to pay for his plan to steal the moon. Yes. Loans were involved. I get hives when even considering the concept of higher level interest rates. How the fuck is a kid going to understand that? Meanwhile, the bank manager instead gives the funds to his pear-shaped son, a villain who tries, and miserably fails, to create his own catchphrase. Sorry, guys, in a world where we have “Yippee kai yay, mutherfucker”, “I’ll be back”, “Use the force,” “You shall not pass”, and “I drink your milkshake”, the phrase “OH YEAH!” isn’t going to cut it. Especially when those words are coming from the mouth of Jason “I’m Over it” Segel. The guy sounds like he rolled out of bed, lit a blunt, and hurriedly spewed every line of dialogue into a fucking dictaphone, sent it to the studio and cashed a check large enough to make my bank account weep with shame.
It was Shrek, that feast of anachronistic fairy tale oddities, that began this trend of inserting famous people into voice acting roles. Yes, we know why you hire Eddie Murphy. We have all seen Delirious (except me. I haven’t. Oops). We also know that, once upon a time, Mike Myers was a bankable talent (shudder). Even John Lithgow has a voice that make bowels loosen and widows faint. But Cameron Diaz? Her? The lady’s strength is her looks. Once you strip that away, all you have left is a tepid and grating personality. It’s like, why the fuck do you cast Taylor Swift in an animated movie? So you can make sure she sings over the end credits? You might as well just hire out a speech therapy clinic for the afternoon. At least those people know how to string words together. If you notice, Pixar never, never lists their cast over posters or the opening credits. Why? Who the fuck cares! Voice acting is a different beast altogether. Here’s something that will blow your noggin: Mark Hamill, remember him? Luke “What Happened to My Career and My Face?” Skywalker? You know what his meal ticket has been for the last twenty years? And I’ll give you a clue, it ain’t Lucasfilm royalty checks. He plays the Joker in the iconic Batman: the Animated Series. Yes, the fucking Joker. Perhaps the greatest incarnation of the character until Heath Ledger ate too many popsicles and covered his hair in bacon grease. Voice actors are voice actors. Why, oh why, would you pay money for Jemaine Clement to voice a minion, when all you’re going to do is mix it into oblivion to sound like all the other minions?
Well, after all that, why don’t we talk about Despicable Me 2? This time around, Gru has become a full-on single parent of the three orphans and left his life of villainy behind. However, there is a new threat to the world and he’s the only person the Anti-Villainy League (yep, no prizes for originality there) can rely on to discover who is behind a plot to create an army of purple, indestructible super-beings. By his side is the new and utterly unpredictable Lucy (Kristen “Sitting on the ‘Tina Fey Throne of Female Comedians'” Wiig) as a super agent with a penchant for being simultaneously completely clueless and infinitely resourceful. While his minions are being picked off one by one and transformed into a purple army of crazed Eraserhead impersonators, Gru and Lucy open a fake bakery (or fakery, thanks Weeds!) in the inaptly named Paradise Mall. From there, we have childhood romances, adventures with jam, an insane guard chicken, and dangerously-close-to-racist antagonist.
It seems that the charm factor has blown itself into oblivion once more. While Agnes isn’t offered too much of the spotlight (with the gigglicious exception of that one scene in the trailer with her and Gru), the focus is on the infinite stream of precocious minions and their increasingly bizarre and gender-bending exploits. Also, remember that fart gun? Yes, it comes back. They milk that puppy for all it’s fucking worth. And, once more, the cavalcade of b-listers continues with the omnipresent Ken Jeong showing up for one bemusingly sexual scene in a wig shop and Kristen Schaal as an indestructible Barbie-doll during perhaps the most surreal and vestigial section of the entire fucking film. Let’s take a moment to go over it: Gru, while trying endlessly to avoid his neighbor’s attempts to set him up with a lady, agrees to go on a date with boobs-mcgee because…he has a wig now? And they go to dinner where Schaal proceeds to do one arm push ups and scream in his face (boobs everywhere) and then finally breaks into full rabid-nutso mode until Lucy shows up and shoots her with moose tranquilizer. The rest of the segment involves Gru and Lucy bonding over smashing the Rohypnol-ed vixen face-first into anything they can find. What the fuck?
Ultimately, the movie was fun. It was as deep as a claustrophobe’s spelunking threshold, but it kept the giggles coming. It was nice to see characters of other race in the film (the bad guy is a mexican wrestler)…though they all end up being evil. Also, it’s nice to have so many women on screen…though three of them are children and the last, Lucy, is about as mentally stable and coherent as Finnegan’s Wake on acid. Is she incompetent? Overly competent? A child? Obsessive compulsive? A manic pixie dream girl? But yes, there were dance sequences including a mildly subversive YMCA booty-break-down and the finale was both hilarious and secretly referential (World War Z, anyone?). All in all, my axe grinding shall halt a moment. I’ll place it on the ground and, perhaps, select a spoon with which to sup upon this light meal. It won’t last forever. It’s no Incredibles. Its imagination maxes out after ‘Three Stooges’ level horseplay. But, it’s a treat. It won’t give you a heart attack or diabetes. It’s harmless and delightful. And, for now, I’m simply going to willfully ignore everything from Pixar until The Good Dinosaur finally materializes in theaters. Let’s hope it’s a little more interesting than The Land Before Time 19: the Search for Spockasaurus.