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Movie

Despicable Me 2
(2013)

 

The animated movie that came to mind repeatedly when watching Despicable Me 2 was Shrek 2. The sequel to a well-received original, it capitalised enormously on the interim embrace of the first picture in the home entertainment market. Shrek 2 became a monster. And it simply wasn’t very good. As unfocussed and sloppy as the first movie was tightly structured and finely observed in both character and gags, it was a clear example of an attempt to continue a story that has nothing left to give (nor would it until the too little, too late Shrek Forever After). And so with Despicable Me 2. There’s no more story to tell, so it becomes an attempt to further embed Gru (Steve Carell) as an acceptable member of society by preordained yardsticks (children, wife, job). And really directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud know this is window dressing, which is why the movie is such a mess. Despicable Me 2 is all about the minions, and any diversion from their diversion feels like filler.

So predominant is the presence of the minions, banana-coloured cyclopean creations bearing the disposition of an Ewok fused with Bobcat Goldthwait, that the end credits are a trailer for their own movie (due next year). And so, the realisation that the whole movie is a form of extended advert for minions, as no doubt the toy market for them is stratospheric (put them in different outfits, sell toys of them in those outfits; feed them a formula to turn them into monstrous purple – but still cute – parodies, sell toys of them thus).

I may be griping about by far DM2’s best element, but it’s dangerous territory when the supporting character or comic relief becomes the fuel stoking the boiler. It’s definitely possible to have too much of a good thing (not that I doubt Minions will clean up). As is often the case with quirky funny little cartoon characters that become the surprise stars (see also Madagascar), it’s the temp track voice artist with whom the filmmakers end up going, in this case Coffin himself (with additional support from Renaud). They’re dependably daft, excitable, mischievous and well meaning. And crucially, they have children’s (or childish adults’) sense of humour.

When Kevin and Bob hear that the head of the Anti-Villain League (which has called on Gru’s services) is called Silas Ramsbottom (voiced by Steve Coogan) they repeat “Bottom” and start sniggering. Called on to try Dr Nefario’s (Russell Brand) new blend of jelly, each minion gags in turn before pretending to like it and passing the jar onto the next of their number. Funny though the material usually is, the cutaway nature of their role means the movie increasingly feels like an assembly of vignettes, be it a minion-in-love fantasy sequence or an Invasion of the Body Snatchers homage, as Kevin and Bob, painted purple, attempt to infiltrate their mutant brethren. The mutant minions are possibly even funnier than the real deal, grunting, growling and slobbering their way through scenes like bastard stepchildren of Warner Bros’ Tasmanian Devil.  It’s a testament to their appeal that even a tired old idea and accompaniment (dressed as in appropriate fancy dress to the sound of YMCA) is fresh and funny as performed by minions.

I enjoyed the first Despicable Me despite my better judgement; it commits the cardinal sin of making cute cartoon moppets central to a story. Anyone can see the child identification in the movie is the minions; the kids are there for the parents to coo over, in particular Agnes who shamelessly presses “Ooooo, she’s so cute!” buttons. Thanks to Carell’s performance, Gru’s discovery of parental instincts isn’t nearly as sugary as it ought to be though, and the juxtaposition with his shaky latest super-villain plan is effective and sprightly.

In contrast, Despicable Me 2 has a consistently “That’ll do” vibe. Animated movies have been increasingly fixated on Bond/superhero knock-offs in recent years (with the villains filtering through them being much of a muchness). The Incredibles did it perfectly, Megamind indifferently. But when there’s Cars 2 at it as well, there aren’t many avenues left open. After the first instalment’s Moon theft, setting the action in a mall is actually not a bad move. I half expected a mini-satire, positing the mall as the centre of all that is wrong with American life; every vendor would be revealed as a super-villain bent on world-domination.

Instead, we’re served weak sauce. Benjamin Bratt’s bad guy (in a role Al Pacino exited at a late stage) makes little impression, further emphasising the picture’s unfussed story beats. He isn’t especially witty, clever or nefarious. The directors even fail to the make the most of that staple, the comedy chicken (“I really hate that chicken”). One also feels there was much more to be made of the PX41 formula (first seen turning a cute bunny into a ravenous brute), maybe of a The Sword in the Stone transformative nature, but its use is disappointingly limited (such that the super-villain showdown is a big snooze).

As for Gru’s romance, it follows a cookie cutter formula that I’ll charitably put down to minion-obsession rather than cynically taking a one-size-fits-all plot from the rack. From his flashback to a rejected childhood (“Gru touched Lisa!”) to a neighbour’s attempts to get him dating (consistently presented is that fact of, no matter how much they warm to him, Gru’s ugliness, which he takes with good humour; his kids mock him as much as anyone), to the inevitable perfect partner (Kristen Wiig, as dependable as ever and with timing equal Carell’s, as Lucy Wilde), Despicable Me 2 never once veers into even marginally unexpected territory. Indeed, it retreads the same basic arc of the first movie, as Gru gradually warms to the idea of love and opening his heart to others. But, since he’s done it once already, this is a case of strictly diminishing returns.

It’s ironic that in the animation world, where the only limiting factor is imagination, sequels tend to a strict template that makes even their live action counterparts appear adventurous. Despicable Me 2 is more agreeable than Shrek 2, but only because of the constant display of minion magic. Like that series, it flounders in its attempts to manufacture conflict where all the dramatic threads have been resolved.

Oscar night is unlikely to look kindly on DM2 in the Best Animated Feature category, although a nomination at all beats the first movie; it’s recognition the movie doesn’t deserve. Frozen gets the statue. As for Original Song, a frequent feast for toons, Frozen’s is standard Disneyfaction , but the feature’s on such a roll I wouldn’t bet against it But no, Pharrell takes it, even if his video proves dressing people in minion costumes isn’t remotely amusing. The third encounter with Gru will arrive in three years’ time. Hopefully it won’t be the series low that Shrek the Third was (we’ll already have had the Puss in Boots equivalent spin-off). But by that point, if you can have a whole movie populated by minions, why settle for anything less?

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