“Despicable Me 2” (2013)

despicable_me_two_ver7_xlgI kept thinking during “The Book of Henry” about how the film seemed to not understand how people work. More importantly, it felt like it didn’t know how children behave, particularly at different ages. The movie used the broad brush of having all of the children either precocious or cute in an age inappropriate way.

Then we have “Despicable Me 2,” which is a cartoon that, despite one flaw, manages to understand how people, particularly children, behave on a day-to-day basis better than “The Book of Henry” or quite a few other scripted TV shows and movies.

“Despicable Me 2” is an interesting film to write about because it feels like it’s the result of a pleasant surprise, similar to “Toy Story 2.” It’s likely Illumination Animation would have gone on to continue to release more films, especially when you look at how they already had “Hop” scheduled for release the next year. But “Despicable Me” managed to be a massive hit, probably bigger than anyone could have expected. Yes, that does mean some people have pre-judged the series, but it has spawned what, based on the second movie, are pretty enjoyable films to help escape the current world.

Gru (Steve Carrell) has retired from villainy to become a full-time father. After a research station is stolen by a giant magnet, he is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to find who stole an experimental serum. While undercover in a bakeshop with AVL agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), Gru begins to suspect Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt), the owner of a Mexican restaurant, is the presumed dead villain El Macho and behind the theft. Meanwhile, the Minions begin going missing from Gru’s home and lair.

The “Despicable Me” movies fall back on some of the tired, annoying problems common in animated films, such as fart jokes, butt jokes, and pop culture gags that sometimes seem out of place. In the universe of “Despicable Me,” there isn’t nearly as much of a problem as in other films. In this film, there seems to be more than in the previous film–one character is named “Ramsbottom,” but I laughed–but it prevents the film from being too bogged down. No, I’m not sure I needed the Minions to make me wonder why none of the members of The Village People ever donned drag and went as the Chiquita lady, but the movie still works.

This is largely because “Despicable Me” often feels like what would happen if you made a Bond film without James Bond that was told from the perspective of the villains. Steal the moon? Steal the Great Pyramid? Steal the Times Square jumbotron? These are all things that have not only happened, but are completely plausible in the universe of the film. The area where the second movie trips up is with the villain. The motivations for the villains in the universe of these films is often, “Why not?” or a means of getting their names out there. But here we’re given a villain whose motivations often feel incredibly murky. Why this? Why now? Yes, we get a nice “Hoboken” gag out of it, but it feels underdeveloped.

The two other problems with the film stem from it losing its bite from the first film. It might be a problem with it becoming such a beloved film–it will be interesting to rewatch the “Shrek” films–but it also has the issue of Gru retiring from villainy. At heart, he’s still a bad guy, but he’s a bad guy with a heart of gold. He still never leaves home without his freeze ray and his knowledge of villains ends up saving the day in this movie. But without his plotting, the film feels like it lacks something.

The other key problem is the Minions, which is no doubt the result of them becoming such popular characters. While they do have a role in the plot of this film, they seem to spend more time on screen than in the first movie, which just feels unnecessary. They at least get their own movie, which will be interesting to watch, and it should be interesting to see how the third movie handles them as characters.

But at the end of the day, “Despicable Me 2” manages to be a fun, escapist comedy. This feels incredibly strange since it is an animated film with a certain fine balance of realism and playful absurdity. Even minor things like a joke at one point about how Agnes is reciting something for an assembly manages to be hilarious because of how true to life it is. It manages to be a family movie that isn’t stupid, which feels like it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make. It still is clever, with plenty of relatable moments and delightful sight gags. Even as an adult, after having my brain fried, albeit on my own terms, this was the right thing to watch and feel better.

There is a place for animated movies that aren’t the high art of Pixar films and are just enjoyable family entertainments. That might be what Illumination’s place in cinema is and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially since the studio seems to be good at doing that based on the “Despicable Me” movies and “Sing.”

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I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!: “The Book of Henry”

book_of_henry_ver2_xlgIt’s rare that movies in this series result in me actually saying, “I can’t believe I just watched that.” “Divergent” certainly made me say that, as did the end credits of “Catch Hell.” But as I was walking to my car after seeing “The Book of Henry,” I actually said, “I can’t believe I just watched that.”

The plot of “The Book of Henry” is an utterly bonkers idea that I can’t believe a bunch of a-list people signed on to do this movie both in front of and behind the camera. I also am a little surprised this has a distribution company as major as Focus Features would distribute this, but then I remember “Collateral Beauty” exists. As I texted a friend after this movie, this a movie where almost every narrative decision is a hard left turn. And because of that, I’m going to let you know I am going to spoil this movie because I can’t talk about the insanity of this plot without spoiling it.

Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is a 12-year-old wünderkind who is an investment genius, an inventor, a co-parent, and apparently went to medical school. In fact, in a movie that largely does not know how children behave–except in a moment with a great joke in the cafeteria late in the film–the only way we can excuse Henry’s stand-up philosophy in his fifth grade class is the fact that we are shown he’s such a genius, he can beat out the girl in “Gifted.” Henry largely takes care of his waitress mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), and his brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay). He even has a crush on the girl next door, Christina (Maddie Ziegler).

The movie has a distinct feel in the first 15 minutes of being a heartwarming film for the whole family, which would explain the fact I was the only person who went to the theater alone. Michael Giacchino even has a nice peppy score for the opening scenes as we see the idyllic small upstate New York town the characters live in.

But then we get to the first hard left turn, where the movie momentarily turns into an after school special on child abuse. Henry suspects Christina is being abused by her stepfather, Glenn (Dean Norris), but he seems to be the only person who cares. After the school principal (an underutilized Tonya Pinkins) explains to Henry she can’t do much because Glenn is the police commissioner, he decides to take it upon himself to figure out how to kill the police commissioner.

At that first twist, I wasn’t too surprised because that’s what I knew from the reviews on the internet. In fact, the general word about this movie was that it’s the movie about the boy genius who decides to kill the head of the police. And yet, that’s not the craziest thing about this movie. While Henry is in the process of his plot, he has a seizure and is diagnosed with a brain tumor by a doctor (Lee Pace), who is left speechless as Henry rambles off everything he can assume about the tumor. The movie then has the cojones to kill off its title character halfway through the movie. While this is such a stunning move, the big question is how the movie can sustain itself for the rest of the run time. In the midst of their grieving, Peter finds his brother’s notebook. From there, his mother is coached through her oldest son’s notes into killing Glenn.

That’s right. This is a movie in which a 12-year-old boy genius dies from a brain tumor and then, from beyond the grave, coaches his mother into killing the police commissioner, who is abusing his stepdaughter.

The movie really doesn’t become interesting until it gets to the point where we realize what the movie is becoming. In fact, you spend a majority of the movie up until Henry’s death wondering if we’re supposed to root for him. He is presented as such a smug asshole, you don’t know why every fawns over him. Then he starts plotting in intricate detail how to kill his neighbor and you actually hope he gets caught, that someone pauses and wonders what is going on with this beloved boy genius. And quite frankly, it’s a little slow up until the point where the script actually makes the decision to kill him off–with the tone, I was actually expecting for a miraculous recovery–and turn the movie into, “Hey, I’m going to have my grieving mother kill an abuser.”

The movie, which is written by crime novelist Gregg Hurwitz, feels more like it was written by a robot than someone who actually lives among people. If we explain Henry away as being a sociopath–or even being raised to be cold, like the Holmes family in the Charlotte Holmes novels–his behavior actually makes sense. Susan is portrayed as a doting mother who also wants to be cool, a woman who can barely get herself dressed most days, and a woman who feels lost while she’s raising this genius. I actually thought from the beginning of the movie this was going to be a poor man’s “20th Century Women,” which is actually an insult to “20th Century Women.” Peter is one-note and the rest of the characters feel so poorly fleshed out. Sheila (Sarah Silverman) is Susan’s co-worker that might be an alcoholic, but the movie is done with that character development as soon as it introduces it. Pace’s doctor keeps showing up for reasons that don’t really make sense and it is just explained away that he’s checking up on the family. Even Christina, who should arguably be one of the characters you care the most about, is reduced to an empty vessel that keeps insisting she’s fine. Like many of the films in this series, it creates characters just to fill up the screen, which is a major problem in a movie that should have a lot of emotional heft.

The script also has handles child abuse in a very clumsy manner. At one point, Henry comes bursting into the principal’s office and begins listing off the signs of child abuse. Child abuse in this film is treated as little more than a list of warning signs, including a moment where Peter offers Christina a cupcake when she’s not eating in the cafeteria and she says, “No.” While the movie does end up with the big murder plot entangling Susan, the child abuse is really just a moment for Henry to save the day. Much like how rape is often treated in storytelling, the child abuse in this movie is of more narrative importance for Henry than the actual victim. The closest we come to seeing any of the real emotional trauma she’s experiencing is when she’s dancing at the talent show, but I’ve also seen enough art and dance performances to know that most good performers emotionally connect to what they’re doing.

The worst part about this movie is it’s a very well-cast in what is ultimately a very competently made movie. Everyone involved here is just saddled with such a rotten script it ends up becoming a bad movie. There’s certainly something that could be salvaged from this movie. There could be a movie solely about a boy genius who tries to win the heart of the girl he has a crush on. You could have a movie about a single mother who, with the help of her two overly precocious children, helps her co-worker overcome alcoholism. You could have a movie about a mother grieving the loss of her oldest son who is pushed towards dating the neurologist who treated her late child, which would actually help answer the question of “Why does Lee Pace keep showing up?” You could even start the movie at Henry’s seizure and death and go with his mother discovering his notes and learning about his plot and her trying to deal with all of those details. Any of those would be better than this baffling mess of a script that led to us possibly having the biggest “What on earth did I just see?” of 2017.

The Films of Dreamworks: “Antz” (1998)

antz_ver3_xlgDreamworks must be one of the most successful companies to be the result of a feud.

Jeffrey Katzenberg had been at Walt Disney Animation, there during its 1980s lull and the start of the “Disney Renaissance.” After a fight with Michael Eisner, he left Disney and started Dreamworks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.  The first film announced to be released by the animation division would be “The Prince of Egypt,” an animated musical telling the story of Moses. While some people view it as a massive “Fuck you” to Disney, it came at a time where every movie studio was desperately trying to emulate Disney and either succeeding (“Anastasia,” “The Prince of Egypt”) or failing massively (“Quest for Camelot,” “The King and I”).

In the midst of the Disney Renaissance was the release of “Toy Story,” which proved to be a big hit for the brand new Pixar. While Pixar proceeded to work on a sequel on “Toy Story,” they also announced a project called “Bugs,” which would focus on a neurotic ant who ends up being a hero, while also falling in love with the princess of the colony. The same year of the release of what was retitled “A Bugs Life,” Dreamworks released what ended up being its first film, “Antz,” a movie about a neurotic ant who ends up being a hero, while also falling in love with the princess of the colony. I will firmly argue “The Prince of Egypt” is not a giant middle finger to Disney, but if this film isn’t, I don’t know what is.

“Antz” does follow the barebones narrative description of “A Bugs Life,” but it also could be described as an animated Woody Allen film. It is a movie with a distinctly mature sense of humor that deals a lot with our place in the world. It’s also a movie in which Woody Allen plays an overbearing creep who kidnaps the female lead, whom he’s obsessed with.

Allen voices Z, a neurotic worker ant who struggles with his day-to-day life in the colony. While he gets along well with fellow worker Azteca (Jennifer Lopez) and Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), a soldier ant, he still finds himself depressed. After Princess Bala (Sharon Stone) decides to visit the bar the colony congregates at, Z becomes infatuated and poses as a warrior ant. After surviving a battle with termites, he is welcomed home as a war hero, but decides to kidnap Princess Bala, who is currently engaged to the fascist leader of the army, General Mandible (Gene Hackman).

When writing about “Despicable Me,” I addressed the idea of what is adult humor in animated films. Animation can result in movies strictly for adults, such as “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut,” or it can result in family movies that have incredibly mature jokes that are clever and sophisticated, such as in quite a few Disney films, “Despicable Me,” and “The Peanuts Movie*”.

Then there is the type of bawdy, gross out humor you find in Dreamworks movies, which I’ll refer to as “Dreamworks Humor.” Dreamworks Humor is often associated with all computer-animated Dreamworks films post-“Shrek” and tend to deal in double entendres that kids won’t understand, gross out humor kids will find funny, and sometimes implied or outright sexual discussions. Dreamworks Humor is found throughout “Antz,” which between that and how dark the film is, I am tempted to suggest it’s not actually a family film and is instead an animated film that managed to get a PG rating. I stopped keeping track of all of the jokes and lines in this film that surprised me, but I did count a comment about drinking from the anus of an aphid, a joke about inbreeding, a scene with bugs eating poop–which, to be fair, is realistic–and a line where Z says Bala had a chance to be in his “erotic fantasies.”

None of these lines make you go, “Oh my God, I can’t believe they went there,” like some lines in “Shrek.” It feels more like you’re watching a comedian who thinks they’re edgy saying a bunch of things in an attempt to shock you and make you laugh like Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, or Ali Wong, but they instead just make you have a really uncomfortable night at a club. This is Dreamworks Humor taken to an extreme, which might be the result of it being the studio’s first film and it ultimately being a film to answer the question of, “What if Woody Allen were an ant?”

The film also has the distinct feeling of being rushed. The animation looks awful, although you have to credit Dreamworks on getting the anatomy of bugs right. It doesn’t have the eye-searing shoddiness you find in “Delgo” or “Foodfight,” but there is a very rough feel to every single detail in this film. What particularly hurts it is the fact it was released the same year as both “A Bug’s Life” and “The Prince of Egypt,” which show us you can have very unique and beautiful animated details of grass, water, and leaves and that Dreamworks did have the technology to have richly detailed CGI in animation, even though “The Prince of Egypt” is a traditionally animated film. The timing of this just feels unfortunate, but when would have been a good time to release a movie that is little more than the equivalent of sending a bag of dicks to Michael Eisner and telling him to eat it? A movie doesn’t have to match the level of artistry found with Pixar movies, but even “Despicable Me,” which was made on a smaller budget, had a unique and even whimsical look to it. The film also has an annoying feeling of several frames looking like they were all put through a tilt shift lens, which feels weird since this is animated, but most of the film has a very clear area that is focused in the middle, and the rest looks very blurry. Maybe this was because I was watching it on Netflix on my laptop, but it added to the film feeling like it had a rushed production.

What’s worse is Dreamworks’ first outing is incredibly boring, even if it briefly addresses totalitarianism and fascism. Not every animated film needs to be filled with bright colors, but the script is needlessly tedious. It wasn’t until 19 minutes into the movie I laughed, and that was at a good sight gag. There can even be very serious animated films–minus three massive flaws, I would argue “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is darker and more adult than this–but this is just dull and feels like a first-draft of a movie.

There are some situations where beating a competitor can pay off, but this shows it doesn’t help when there’s a subpar product. Thankfully, there were two better films released that year, one of which was made by the same studio that made “Antz.”

*It’s very Schultz-ian, but I will never stop laughing at every joke about “War and Peace” in “The Peanuts Movie,” even if I now find myself singing songs from “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.”

“Despicable Me” (2010)

despicable_me_ver6_xlg Despite having a very clear affection for most animated movies, I failed to see “Despicable Me” until recently. I actually don’t remember it being released in 2010, possibly because I was busy working on moving back to Chicago and trying to emotionally recover from “Toy Story 3.”

Of course, “Despicable Me” is a franchise that seems inescapable, largely due to the Minions. If anything, the near ubiquity of the Minions led me to avoid watching the series until recently. They seemed to be annoying cute little sidekicks, the kind I don’t enjoy in children’s movies. This changed when I saw a trailer for “Despicable Me 3” before a film in the winter–possibly “Moana,” which I still have a lot of affection for. If you were wondering what is a good way to hook me into film series I’ve almost intentionally avoided for six-and-a-half years, promise me there will be an 80s-Themed villain in your movie. After the trailer ended, I turned to my mom and said, “We might need to catch up on these movies.” My willingness to at least give this series a shot increased after watching “Sing,” another Illumination film, which had a cute, fun premise, with a surprising amount of depth.

I finally sat down and watched “Despicable Me” after months of thinking I would one day watch the movies. I didn’t go in with low expectations or hopes of it being the greatest animated film of the year. I just decided to sit back and see how it was, which worked very well when I saw “Sing.”

The movie follows Gru (Steve Carrell), a villain who decides to try to steal the moon after Vector (Jason Segal) steals the Great Pyramid. Due to cost constraints, Gru and his collaborator, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), decide the best way to carry out this scheme is to shrink the moon and then steal it. Following being foiled by Vector, Gru adopts three orphan girls, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), Agnes (Elsie Fisher), to aid in carrying out his plot, but finds himself growing attached to the girls.

The risk you often run when watching most animated family films is finding humor that is too mature, often becoming bawdy, like any of the “Shrek” films. “Despicable Me” operates at a very smart, clever level of a lot of its humor, right down to a sight gag involving Lehman Brothers. Even how showing how Gru is a moderately successful villain by having him mention to the Minions how he stole the miniature versions of famous landmarks from Las Vegas hotels is skillfully done through Carrell’s timing in his voice acting. It’s refreshing to watch a movie that understands good humor doesn’t mean stooping to jokes about cars having diarrhea.

It’s also nice, being someone who recently bemoaned the lack of good villains in children’s movies–although Gaston felt more deranged in the live-action “Beauty and the Beast,” so good on Disney–to see a movie about villains where the characters are outright bad. Gru takes joy in a child’s misery in our first introduction to him, uses a freeze ray a little too freely, and adopts three orphans as a means to the end of his scheme to steal the moon. Vector shows us at multiple moments he doesn’t care for the safety of children, which kept reminding me of a point made about villains in “The Incredibles.” It is possible to write a movie with a villain who is evil and make him not very good. Perhaps because of the concept of writing a film focused on bad guys, this movie succeeds at having villains who both succeed at driving conflict and being good antagonists on both ends of the spectrum. It might be difficult to believe Gru would really switch so fast to liking the trio he adopts, but to jump on this film for plot contrivances seems a bit harsh since the top-grossing animated film of this decade (and currently, all time) has a plot that makes no sense. It is possible to believe Gru, who has issues with his own rough childhood, would turn and feel immense love for the girls.

The Minions also manage to not bog down the movie with their silliness. As I’ve addressed elsewhere on here, it’s very difficult to have a sidekick who doesn’t feel out of place. The Minions largely work because when they’re on screen, they’re there to serve a purpose, which is be minions. They happen to be cute, tiny yellow guys who speak a nonsense language, but they actually have a reason to appear on screen. Perhaps due to their popularity they start to overwhelm the subsequent movies–although they did get their own prequel, which I will look at–but at least here, there’s nothing inherently wrong with them.

There’s nothing high-art or heart-wrenching about “Despicable Me,” but for a film that has likely been written off by many as mindless due to the popularity of one group of characters–one friend questioned my sanity when I told her I liked this movie because of the Minions–it manages to be smart, clever, enjoyable film that looks like it could appeal to everyone in a family.