“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.”

“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.