Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Cinema File #213: "Despicable Me 2" Review

The local theater where I see most of my movies happens to be a part of the Cinemark chain of cinemas, not because of any brand loyalty on my part, but simply due to its close proximity to my home, and its relatively cheap ticket price as compared to the next closest theater, an AMC boasting thirty screens and many luxuries that inflate the cost. One of the drawbacks to the Cinemark experience that almost makes me want to spend the extra money to go elsewhere is that I have to regularly be assaulted with the presence of the Minions from Despicable Me. I don’t know if they do this nationwide, though I have no reason to think they don’t, but at my theater, at least for the past year since I’ve been going there, these tiny yellow gibberish spouting creatures have been the mascots of this chain, appearing before every movie engaging in their wacky antics to remind me to be quiet and buy popcorn. In the original film, I found these monsters to be only mildly annoying and occasionally amusing. I have grown to despise them and everything they stand for with every fiber of my being. Just thought you should know where my head was at going into the sequel, Despicable Me 2, as your experience may vary considerably.

Despicable Me 2 follows Groo, ex-international super villain turned suburban single father, conscripted into the service of the good guys and tasked with tracking down a bad guy in a shopping mall before he unleashes a horde of mutant monsters upon the world. Though it’s not without its charm, the original Despicable Me doesn't really hold up all that well, especially when compared to Megamind, a similar movie released the same year that took the same premise of a sympathetic super villain and executed it much better in pretty much every possible way. The one thing Despicable Me had over Megamind was the unexpectedly sweet parent-child relationship between Groo and the trio of young girls who eventually became his adopted daughters. Unfortunately in the sequel this aspect of the story fades somewhat into the background to make way for a focus on Groo’s romantic life and return to the world of super-crime, two things that frankly I couldn't care less about. Oh, and a lot more of those damned Minions.

I remember when Shrek 3 came out, how strange it seemed at the time that so much of the plot dealt with the title character’s anxiety about being an expecting father, as if that kind of stress is at all relatable to the children making up the film’s target audience. Even more recently with Monsters University, the idea that so many kids who don’t even know what college is would enjoy a movie set at one seems bizarre to me. It is in this context that I wonder about the efficacy of eschewing the parenting angle just to tell a story of Groo finding love, especially when the whole point of the first movie is that he’s already found it. Its not that the romantic angle doesn't work for the character, but it doesn't really play to his strengths either. There are large swaths of the film where Groo, now a full time single parent, leaves his kids home alone for hours to go off gallivanting with his new secret agent girlfriend, and while based on the logic of the movie I don’t see him as a bad parent, I can’t help but feel like the movie has forgotten what made the last one work as well as it did.

Then again, perhaps this story line would have worked better if the love interest weren't so insufferably annoying. Kristen Wiig plays essentially Kristen Wiig as a cartoon character with spy training, awkward and goofy with that weird sort of pseudo charm that almost makes me want to like her if something weren't just a little bit off. Its actually a very good performance by the standard of capturing the essence of an actress in animated form, which I don't think is ever necessary, but like Emma Stone in The Croods is always interesting to watch when it happens. The problem is, Emma Stone is actually likable, so the cartoon form is entertaining to watch, while this is just off putting. Its strange to say that a cartoon character could be accused of trying too hard in a movie, given that every cartoon character is the result of a collaboration between a voice actor and a group of animators, but if I didn't know any better I'd say that everyone got together to infuse this slender super spy with as many grating personality quirks as possible, as if Sarah Silverman in Wreak It Ralph was the benchmark. Or maybe they were just trying to cancel out the Minions with something equally terrible or even more loathsome.

Yeah, I know I keep harping on the little guys, but seriously, what the Hell does anyone find funny about these things? And before you say anything, I know they're meant for kids to enjoy, but you know what, so is every great animated movie that doesn't employ this shit. "For Kids" doesn't have to mean dumbed  down to a level that makes the word "juvenile" synonymous with "too stupid to know better". But oh, they talk in funny nonsense speak and fart a lot. Dear God. Maybe I'm just spoiled having grown up in the Disney Renaissance and the era when Don Bluth actually cared about the quality of his movies, a brief sweet spot in the 80's and 90's after the cheap, quick, and dirty Hanna Barbara standard, but before the hollow corporatization of entertainment completely subsumed all creative enterprise. My theater was filled with uproarious laughter at everything these little fuckers did, so much so that they even applauded at the end, and call me an elitist if you want but that just shouldn't be. Its as if in their secret gobblety gook dialogue they have found the secret language of pandering, distilling the essence of unearned comedic admiration, but its all just Greek to me.

That's not to say that there aren't good things about the movie. As always, Groo hits that line between funny and heartwarming even if he is weirdly ignoring his children. His rambling bi-polar delivery is oddly charming and he's interesting enough as a character that even given all of this franchise's flaws, I wouldn't mind seeing him continue to pop up in movies, as long as they tone down some of the other elements of his world. And when I say the girls fade into the background, its only in relation to what I would otherwise want in this story. There is still a significant subplot involving one of them at least, and its good as far as it goes, though its ultimately given short shrift once the action leads to the inevitable wacky action climax. The villain is also kinda fun, or at least the set up for him is funny, though the follow through leaves something to be desired. There's a good movie in here somewhere; it just gets lost in all the scatter shot gags and mayhem.

There's an old Patton Oswalt bit about the problem of working as a punch up writer on CG animated movies, about how they are often so tightly written and almost completed from a technical standpoint by the time the new writers get to it, that there's very little anyone can add save the occasional off screen bit of non-sequitur dialogue. Despicable Me 2 feels like the opposite of this, like the producers had a movie that maybe was more streamlined, and then just opened the floodgates for anyone to pitch their own jokes after the fact, regardless of whether they fit with anything or enhanced the story. Its a kitchen sink movie, throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks, and the few things that do kept me from the urge I often felt to walk out. Your enjoyment will ultimately depend on how much you can tolerate the sink being thrown at your face to get to the few relatively smaller bright spots. Which is to say, it will depend entirely on how much you can stand those godawful yellow things for an hour and a half to enjoy the good stuff in between.

Like it, don't like it, I don't care at this point. Just don't clap in the theater at the end of the movie. Its a stupid trend and it really needs to stop. Seriously, even if you like a movie, the people who made it aren't fucking there to accept your applause. Think for a second about the stupid shit you do, people. 

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