Skip to main content

Good day, Mr. Sheepsbutt.

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?


***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

Yeah, keep walking, you lanky prick!

Mute (2018)
(SPOILERS) Duncan Jones was never entirely convincing when talking up his reasons for Mute’s futuristic setting, and now it’s easy to see why. What’s more difficult to discern is his passion for the project in the first place. If the picture’s first hour is torpid in pace and singularly fails to muster interest, the second is more engaging, but that’s more down to the unappetising activities of Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux’s supporting surgeons than the quest undertaken by Alex Skarsgård’s lead. Which isn’t such a compliment, really.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?

Silkwood (1983)
Mike Nichol’s film about union activist Karen Silkwood, who died under suspicious circumstances in a car accident in 1974, remains a powerful piece of work; even more so in the wake of Fukushima. If we transpose the microcosm of employees of a nuclear plant, who would rather look the other way in favour of a pay cheque, to the macrocosm of a world dependent on an energy source that could spell our destruction (just don’t think about it and, if you do, be reassured by the pronouncements of “experts” on how safe it all is; and if that doesn’t persuade you be under no illusion that we need this power now, future generations be damned!) it is just as relevant.

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…