Despicable Me 2 review: a little bit despicable itself

Despicable Me 2 red light

In an almost terrifying reversal from the first film, this is crude, racist, and sexist, in entirely well-worn ways. (But the Minions are still funny.)
I’m “biast” (pro): adored the first movie

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Great. Apparently this is to be the summer of Animated Movies That Did Not Require A Sequel But Are Getting One Anyway. First it was Monsters University. Now, mere days later, it’s Despicable Me 2. Little packages of Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy wrapped up in CGI glitter. There is, quite literally, no need to find any new stories to tell or — at a bare minimum — any clever way to tell old stories because mass audiences don’t seem to care. Monsters U made an obscene amount of money last weekend and will play strong throughout the summer. Me 2 will do the same. Because comfortable familiarity is better than challenging freshness. (Just look at Man of Steel. It opened well, because everyone knows and loves Superman. And it took a huge 65 percent drop in North America over its second weekend, and a smaller but still dramatic 56 percent in the U.K., because it’s not a same-old-Supes story, and apparently that earned it bad word-of-mouth.)

What makes Despicable Me 2 so enraging is that the first film did challenge us. Not a lot. Not in any hugely subversive way. But it doesn’t take much to shake up a Hollywood paradigm. Casting a villain as the hero is one way… even if the only way to get away with that is in a cartoon comedy. Filling out a cast of characters with three wild — and wildly individual — little girls bursting with personality is another way. And, of course, the simple fact that the first film was not based on a comic book or a line of toys or another older movie was almost earth-shattering. We had no idea what to expect. Amazing. And it worked. By some fluke, Despicable Me earned more than $250 million in North America (and even more than that internationally).

I thought, at the time: These guys get it. Directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud (The Lorax). Screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (who as a team wrote Hop and Horton Hears a Who!). They get that we need new stories and new perspectives, and they get that it’s possible to offer such scary things and still be entertaining.

But I was wrong. Obviously their cunning creativity was a fluke, too. Because they have reverted to tedious, narrowminded Hollywood form with Me 2. The appealing premise of the first film — Gru’s humorous despicableness — cannot carry over, because the first film was all about the little girls curing Gru of his villainy, which they did entirely too well. I’m sure I unconsciously imagined that the same team behind Me would have found a way around this narrative dilemma, so it makes Me 2 even more of a crushing disappointment that they didn’t.

It’s an almost terrifying reversal we get instead. Where Me ended with a happy, unconventional family, Me 2 is all about finding Gru (the voice of Steve Carell: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Hope Springs) a wife, so that the family can be “normal.” Somehow this “naturally” translates into a “comedic” running motif about how women are too fat, too ugly, too hairy, too obnoxious, too pushy, too anything-but-“ladylike” for Gru. One particularly awful scene apparently demanded, for comedy’s sake, that an unpleasant evening end with Gru drugging his date and hauling her home atop a car as if she were, perhaps, a deer slain on a hunt.

Who else incurs Gru’s wrath? How about the boy Gru’s eldest daughter, Margo (the voice of Miranda Cosgrove: School of Rock), thinks is cute? That’s just completely appropriate Dad behavior, of course: it’s a father’s duty to ensure that no male of the species ever gets close to his daughter.

There’s plenty despicable, all righty. But none of it is the sort of all-encompassing misanthropy that made Gru so hilarious an anti-hero in the first film. The drugged-woman-atop-the-car bit is achieved, in fact, with the help of Lucy (the voice of Kristen Wiig: Friends with Kids, Bridesmaids), an agent for the Anti-Villain League, which has enlisted Gru’s help to hunt down a new supervillain before he can put his very bad master plan into play. Lucy is one of the Good Guys, so as far as the movie is concerned, being treated like a prey animal is appropriate punishment for a woman who is annoying but harmless. (Lucy also uses a taser like a toy, which is supposed to be funny, so I guess cavalier use of a potentially deadly weapon supposedly isn’t despicable, either.)

Me 2 seems not to think there’s anything despicable in its depiction of its possible supervillain suspects, Asian stereotype Floyd (the voice of Ken Jeong: The Hangover Part III, Transformers: Dark of the Moon) or Mexican stereotype Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Love in the Time of Cholera), the latter of whom may even be supervillain El Macho, former nemesis of Gru’s. It’s just all in good fun. Of course it is.

Perhaps worst of all, however, is the story’s “happy” conclusion: that no matter what their own dreams and desires, women are for rescuing and then for marrying. I bet the Gru at the end of Despicable Me would have moved mountains — or blown them up — if anyone suggested that that was all his girls are good for. I’ve heard it suggested that what it takes for a man to become a feminist is that he have daughters. Obviously, however, a story about a man with daughters needn’t automatically be feminist.

All this unpleasantness — Me 2 is crude, racist, sexist, and in entirely well-worn ways — almost completely drains whatever charm may have lingered from the first film. Nothing that made the first film work has been retained. Well, okay: Gru’s blobby yellow worker-bee Minions are still very funny. They could have cut away all the non-Minion stuff here and ended up with a bunch of Minion shorts. And that would have been just fine.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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