Since starting this blog, the only truly negative review for a new release that I’ve written has been for Hotel Transylvania and even that was balanced with some praise for certain aspects such as the humour. In general I like to write positive reviews – I started this blog because I love animation, and writing something negative doesn’t feel like the best way to express that love. In fact I actively didn’t want to write anything negative, so in the run up to writing this I’ve spent a good portion of time playing Candy Crush Saga to avoid the inevitable negativity that is going to pour fourth when it comes to writing about Despicable Me 2. But I’ve come to a realisation: writing negative reviews also shows my love for animation – film fans should not be blindly accepting of everything that is put in front of their eyes. Some sharp criticism of bad film making should give us a keener appreciation of when it is done well. So I write about the dull, formulaic Despicable Me 2 not because I enjoy tearing things apart (I don’t) but because as an animation fan I want better than this by the numbers dross. I write this because I’m still holding out for an animated masterpiece of 2013. Miyazaki and Takahata it’s over to you, because it’s not Despicable Me 2.
The problem seems to be that the first Despicable Me was incredibly popular and made over half a billion dollars worldwide. Not without good reason – the first film had a great central character with a brilliant concept – he was a villain whose heart was being softened by three young girls who he was looking after. He still had a bit of bite to him, and the balance between his meanness and innate goodness provided a strong if familiar core to the film. Yet the two other big successes of the first film – and the ones that seem to be remembered by film makers and marketers alike – are the youngest girl Agnes and the army of small, stupid and yellow minions that populate Gru’s underground lair. Although many were inclined to hate them and their pointless existence, they were, by and large, hilarious. The 5 year old I was looking after actually referred to the minions as ‘despicable mes,’ and they stole the show right out from under Gru’s nose.
In the sequel Agnes’ cuteness and the minions’ stupidity is pushed front and centre even if it is utterly irrelevant to the plot. Now, plot may not be what you want in a daft comedy for kids but the film tries desperately to cram a plot in where it is largely unwanted, and the daft comedy quickly becomes tiresome. The film moves mindlessly from minion pratfall to cute Agnes moment then back to minion pratfall without developing anything, be it characters, plot, humour, or our brain cells. This is stupid, lowest common denominator film-making. Is that such a big problem if the children are entertained? Well Pixar, Disney and Ghibli have shown that you can put humour in films that still has interesting story telling and good craftsmanship. Arguing that if children are entertained then it doesn’t matter how bad the film is is like saying that if children are full then it doesn’t matter how bad the food is. Despicable Me 2 is the cinematic equivalent of force feeding your children Macdonalds when you could give them fresh, home cooked food for the same price next door, and even the toy they get with their happy meal breaks immediately. We can demand better from the films our children watch.
Even if ‘as long as the kids are happy’ is a valid argument for the existence of a film, then it can only be applied dubiously to this Chicken McNugget of a film. Laughs were scarce in the cinema I was in, which was equal parts children and adults. Perhaps it is the confusing plot, which sees Gru employed by the Anti-Villain league so he can set up a cupcake shop (?) in a shopping mall to try and find a villain who is in hiding there (for unexplained reasons) while he mixes a concoction that can turn things big, purple, furry and evil. Gru has to stop the villain, rescue minions, stop his oldest daughter from falling in love and work out his own feelings for his AVL partner Lucy (voiced by Kristen Wiig). The action whizzes indiscriminately from location to location while the kids watching struggle to keep up and, more importantly, struggle to care. At one point the minions turn evil, so even the most accessible element of the film to children ends up alienating them. It seems to go on forever, stretching the patience of everyone watching as it tries and singularly fails to be funny.
Humour, however, is subjective, so saying it’s not funny is a matter of opinion, granted. But nothing else works either. Gru has been tamed, none of the original venom is there so that now he’s just a good father – which is nice to see but here doesn’t make for compelling viewing. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see more good fathers in cinema, but when the principle plot point of the first film is that the guy is a villain, to strip that from him in the sequel leaves the humour and story feeling painfully muted. Once again out of the three children only one – Agnes – is given anything approaching a character and even she is just there to be cute. There’s no emotional investment, the plot is boring and predictable and the finale isn’t even particularly dramatic. The animation is unimpressive and the character design is ugly. This is such a painting-by-numbers film that not one element of it feels original or new or exciting or funny. We’ve seen it all before and, Chris Meledandri if you please, we never want to see it again.