Despicable Me 2 (2013)
★ / ★★★★
There is no reason for this film to have been made.
Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, “Despicable Me 2” has a plot but no story—certainly none that is worth telling. The basic set-up is this: Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is kidnapped by Lucy (Kristen Wiig), a secret agent for the Anti-Villain League, because a secret lab in the Arctic, containing a dangerous serum, is suddenly whisked away. Since Gru is a former villain, the league hopes that Gru will lend his expertise to sniff out the person responsible. The pool is narrowed down to a group of store owners in a mall.
The picture overloads on cute. It seems as though the writers, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, thought of scenes that pass as “adorable” and came up with situations—does not matter if they do not fit within the context of the plot—revolving around the “Aww” moment. I did not fall for it. There is no cleverness in the writing. Much of it is forced. The jokes are either infantile of falls completely flat. No amount of bright colors can cover the inner deadness being paraded on the screen.
Perhaps the approach is appealing to children—and there is nothing wrong with that. But I think children deserve better than this fluff. There is no great lesson to be learned here. It could have been about fatherhood and how difficult it can be to be a single parent. Quite frankly, I found it ridiculous and embarrassing that the screenplay settles for the lowest hanging fruit: a so-called romance between Gru and Lucy. Five- or six-year-old kids could care less about that. And why should the older audiences care when the relationship has no depth or meaning?
It is not even imaginative enough to create an interesting villain. The reveal of his or her identity is no surprise at all. It is kept a “secret” for so long that when the third act comes around, no one cares any longer. Further, the motivation is not clear and so the endgame has no form. Certain characters change sides for no good reason. The next thing you know, the script has tried every trick in the book but none of it has worked.
The lack of ambition and ingenuity that went into this sequel is shocking. I understand that the point is to make a lot of money because a lot of people liked the predecessor, but the least the filmmakers could have done was to try to hide it by actually making something that was worth everyone’s time. Supporting this picture is rewarding laziness.
The Lorax (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Mr. O’Hare (voiced by Rob Riggle), the richest businessman in town who sold fresh oxygen in bottles, believed that Thneedville was perfect just the was it was: no trees, no animals, no mess to clean up. In their giant dome, to everyone’s convenience, everything was made out of plastic. When Audrey (Taylor Swift) confessed to Ted (Zac Efron), who happened to have a crush on her, that what she wanted for her birthday was a real tree, Ted courageously explored outside of Thneedville to look for one. Among the barren and ominous land was a house inhabited by a reclusive man called The Once-ler (Ed Helms), the person responsible as to why trees became extremely rare. Based on the book by Dr. Seuss and directed by Chris Renaud, “The Lorax,” despite its sometimes dazzling use of visuals, was at best a mixed bag of humor, adventure, and lessons about why we should care for the environment. The story was somewhat divided into two. The first involved Ted’s quest to acquire a tree and the second involved The Once-ler’s past as an ambitious and inventive young man. In the latter, we got to meet The Lorax, the guardian of the forest who spoke for the trees, which was the more interesting section of the film. While the screenplay spent more time with the youthful Once-ler, many of the scenes were plagued with distracting song and dance–only one or two of which were catchy and creative. The rest were not only jarring to the eardrums but they disrupted the story’s chance of gathering real momentum and drama, a sense of immediacy required to deliver a truly meaningful message about our active as well as inactive roles, such as feelings of apathy, in destroying our natural resources. I thought the bears were adorable, particularly the one that carried more weight than the others and so he was forced to lag behind whenever a physical activity was demanded, and The Lorax was a cuddly creature despite his occasional grumpiness. However, mostly relying on cuteness to propel the story forward with fluidity wasn’t enough to sustain the film especially considering its level of ambition. Furthermore, I did not appreciate that The Once-ler’s family was portrayed in such a one-dimensional way. I was able to accept that they were not very supportive of The Once-ler’s dreams of becoming a successful businessman. But there was something about them being portrayed as, pardon my language, rednecks that didn’t feel right. They were shown as greedy, users, and uncaring people. Not one exception who happened to fit all the stereotypes was presented. Since the work was aimed toward young children, I felt that the filmmakers, especially Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul who were in charge of the screenplay, had a responsibility to avoid cultural stereotypes. If the family had been Chinese, Indian or Filipino and their characterizations simply relied on ugly stereotypes, one could argue that the material was being racist. I may come off as a Grinch but despite the best intentions and morals that “The Lorax” wanted to impart about our vital connection to nature, its hits were inconsistent, its pacing too uneven, and its clichés potentially damaging to warrant a recommendation. Its theme in terms of empathy needed to be ironed out.
Despicable Me (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), a supervillain resembling Penguin from Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns,” felt pressure to top Vector’s (Jason Segel) recent accomplishment–stealing a pyramid in Egypt. So Gru came up with a brilliant idea: steal the moon. Unfortunately, he did not have enough money to create a rocket that would launch him to outer space. An opportunity disguised as three orphans named Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) knocked on Gru’s door and slowly he began to realize that perhaps having a family was more important than being known as the world’s most famous supervillain. Although “Despicable Me” did not have anything particularly new to offer to its genre, like most successful animated films, its simplicity worked to its advantage. The humor was obvious, we knew exactly where the story was going and it was easy to relate to it because it played on the inner child within all of us. It was the small details in animation referencing to pop culture not at all dissimilar to the “Austin Powers” franchise and tiny tweaks to the typical storyline that elevated this movie to the next level. Its cuteness was constantly on overdrive especially the scenes with Agnes’ big eyes combined with her hilarious one-liners and Gru’s sometimes unintelligible minions (Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud, Jemaine Clement). The action sequences were silly but inspired (my favorite was when Gru was finally successful at entering Vector’s lair), the psychological explanations involving Gru’s motivations brought a silly grin on my face, and even the will-he-or-will-he-not-make-it scene involving a ballet recital was strangely involving. What completely did not work for me, however, were the dance sequences. Those were unnecessary because they felt cheap, out-of-place and lame. Since the material was already over-the-top, being more over-the-top hindered its momentum and I would have preferred more jokes even if they involved a little bit of slapstick. “Despicable Me,” directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, is a harmless but entertaining movie full of charm and fiery creativity. The picture reached its peak when we were allowed to reenter a child’s sense of wonder–a quality that, unfortunately, most of us have lost. Gru may be a supervillain with a penchant for making kids happy one minute and then taking away their source of happiness the next, but he is far from despicable and definitely more lovable.