Thursday, July 4, 2013

More (and Less) of the Same: DESPICABLE ME 2

Did you like the 2010 animated slapstick comedy Despicable Me? Well, have I got news for you. Here’s Despicable Me 2, featuring more of everything you liked about Despicable Me except 1.) the sense of surprise, 2.) narrative momentum, and 3.) a non-monetary reason to exist. Oh, sure, Steve Carell’s Gru, the failed supervillain who decided being a dad is even better than being bad, is still a funny voice performance married to distinctive hunched design. His adopted daughters are as precocious and cute as ever. His army of yellow, nugget-shaped, gibberish-babbling Minions represents an often-hysterical expression of pure cartoony id in the best Looney Tunes tradition. But what’s missing most of all in this sequel is a sense of purpose. It’s cute, but the scope of this film feels so small, cramped even. It’s pitched at the level of a not-especially hardworking Saturday-morning cartoon series, smaller stakes, simpler emotions, and a safe, comforting plot that never strays too far from the status quo. As a handful of episodes in this hypothetical TV show, it’d be an amiable time-waster, but as a feature film, this doesn’t quite cut it. Though still amiable, on the big screen its time-waster status looms large.

Since tradition dictates sequels need plots, this one gets one. Gru, having retired from supervillainy at the end of the first film, is asked by the Anti-Villain League to put his skills to use spotting a supervillain in hiding. He turns them down at first. He has a comfortable life throwing his daughter’s birthday party and putting his Minions to work making a line of jams and jellies. But, plot intervenes, and one Silas Ramsbottom (Steve Coogan, in a pinched, nasally voice) pairs Gru with Agent Lucy (Kristen Wiig) to go undercover in a snazzy geodesic-dome-shaped mall and find the person responsible for pilfering an entire Arctic research station in a giant flying electromagnet. (In true cartoon fashion, the ship is in the shape of, what else, a giant horseshoe magnet. I liked that.) So this time around Gru is a good guy who helps the good guys. Gone is the sweet-and-sour core that gave the first film its altogether unexpected, but most welcome, bite. Now it’s just a typical busy kiddie flick that’s broad and appealing without ever much breaking out of the box it has built for itself.

And that’s not a bad thing, necessarily. To sit and watch Despicable Me 2 is not an unpleasant experience. There are bright colors and funny noises and sometimes the 3D bops something towards your face. There’s bouncy cartoon-violence slapstick and plenty of silly moments throughout. Several subplots bounce around within the main throughline: a mysterious something is kidnapping Minions; Gru’s oldest daughter (Miranda Cosgrove) has a crush on a cute boy (Moises Arias) she met at the mall; Gru’s youngest (Elsie Fisher) is struggling with her lines for the Mother’s Day pageant (sadly the middle child (Dana Gaier) is left without a plot of her own); the flighty Lucy just might be a source of Gru love if he ever realizes it. On a simple plot level, a lot is happening here, and it converges into a climax that ties up all the plotlines in a pretty bow. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all mildly entertaining, sometimes kicking up past mild and into very. At one point, the Minions recreate a mid-90’s pop ballad and the scene had me in stitches, though I bet the little kids in the audience might’ve wondered why it was that funny.

Movies like this make me wish we still had a viable market for animated short films. Why force Gru, his girls, and his Minions to fill a feature length runtime with every outing? They’re hugely appealing and animated with bright, round, colorful visuals. Imagine a world in which Universal opts to create dozens of six or seven minute shorts with these characters. Wouldn’t a few minutes of inspired Minion madness be just the thing to show before, say, Furious 6? (Maybe Fox could jump on the bandwagon and put Scrat the prehistoric squirrel before X-Men or something.) Alas, that’s not what we’re considering here. Despicable Me 2 is a safe and competent kids’ movie that’s happy with its smallness and tameness (not to mention sameness). It’s a quintessential “good enough” sequel, satisfied to simply say, you liked this last time so here’s some more. It’s coasting on audience goodwill.

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