The more I think about Despicable Me 2, the more depressed it makes me feel. The 2010 original is one of my favorite non-Pixar American animated films of the 21st century, a hilarious and heartfelt family comedy with a strong, poignant emotional core and vivid, three-dimensional characters. Despicable Me 2 follows not in the footsteps of its predecessor, but in those of the endless, generic cookie-cutter animated sequels of recent times, like Shrek 3-4, Ice Age 2-4, Madagascar 2-3, and Kung Fu Panda 2. Where the original film felt like it had something to prove, boasting a creative energy and thematic confidence that was absolutely refreshing, Despicable Me 2 coasts 100% on autopilot, if that. It is a thoroughly lazy, disengaged mess of mediocrity, and while the animation is very nice, and the majority of the vocal performances are reasonably strong, it feels as if little to no effort went in to virtually every other element of the film. I have seen much worse movies this year, but as I have said before, and sadly suspect I shall say again in the future, nothing makes me more depressed about the state of Hollywood than cash-grab animated sequels like these.
If I sound harsh, that is because I feel very, very strongly that animated and family films should be judged as critically as anything else, if not more so. Kids deserve the best, and just because Hollywood clearly can make disgusting piles of cash without going the extra mile (or even making any creative effort to begin with) does not mean they should. No, children are not particularly discerning consumers of media, but that is because it is an acquired skill, one that correlates directly to the quality of what they are shown, and how engaged the material allows them to be. I have no problem with mindless, goofy fun – that is absolutely an integral part of childhood – but many of these animated sequels barely operate on that level, while the films of Pixar, and studio outliers like the original Despicable Me, have proven that such fun can absolutely be had while married to a genuine story with compelling characters (and films that achieve this are, not coincidentally, the ones that tend to have the biggest box-office success). In short, I only ask that Hollywood respect the children that drive so much of their financial success – that ‘just decent enough’ for theatrical distribution stop being the creative standard for these sequels. I understand how integral franchising is to the industry’s bottom line, and while I would prefer the studios try developing more original properties for children and families, I do not believe these sequels have to be so frustratingly insipid.
At the end of the day, all it really takes is a good story; no matter how little a film may call for it, a sequel can absolutely be a rewarding creative endeavor if a strong story and central theme can be identified (the recent Monsters University is proof of this). Even with the majority of the original creative team returning, though, this is where Despicable Me 2 falls short. The plot – a new, mysterious super-villain has stolen a dangerous chemical compound, and an espionage organization recruits reformed bad-guy Gru (Steve Carell) to help track him down – is not necessarily uninspired, and I think you could hang a reasonably fun family spy adventure on that premise, but the execution is paper-thin. Gru is given a goofy partner, Lucy (Kristen Wiig), and in one of the most inexplicably unimaginative set-ups in recent memory, the two establish their operation in a shopping mall to investigate local business owners, one of whom might be the bad guy.
I am inclined to say ‘antics ensue,’ but that would only be partially accurate, as the mall conceit is really just an excuse to get the main characters out of the way and keep them busy while the minions – those popular, hyper-energetic yellow creatures that have become Illumination Entertainment’s mascots – engage in various slapstick shenanigans. The minions were, of course, the breakout characters of the original, and a major reason why that film garnered such extreme popularity, and it is abundantly clear that the core purpose of making this sequel, both creatively and commercially, was to give the audience more of them. Much more. The structure of the first two acts alternates between a scene with Gru and the human characters, then a mildly amusing slapstick sketch with the minions. Wash, rinse, and repeat, over and over again. Even the Ice Age films never went this heavy on their mascot character, Scrat, and while the minions continue to get some chuckles, I found myself increasingly disillusioned the more apparent it became that quantity of minions, not quality of minions, was the goal at hand. Gru and Lucy’s investigation does not even have a chance to develop into anything funny, exciting, or interesting, because the movie is constantly in a hurry to return to the minions, thus leaving every Gru sequence rushed and underdeveloped. Gru and Lucy basically discover who the bad guy is the moment they move in to the mall, and then proceed to move in circles until the climax is thrust upon them (at which point the minions, as one might guess, basically take over the show).
It never feels, for a second, like the creative team had any interest whatsoever in returning to the human characters for this sequel, and that is reflected in the core character arcs of the picture. I actually think one could take the relationship between Gru and his three adopted daughters established in the first film in several interesting directions – had Pixar made this sequel, I suspect they would have told an interesting story about fatherhood and adoption – but Illumination chose the most obvious, insultingly saccharine route possible: the girls want a mother, and Gru needs a wife. It is a cliché sequel direction audiences have seen over and over again in the past, and at this point, I find myself actively offended by it.
Many of the kids who will go see Despicable Me 2 this weekend are no doubt raised by single parents. There is nothing wrong with single parenting, nor is there anything bad about being single. A kid can have a perfectly happy and fulfilling childhood without two parents, and a mom or a dad can do just fine without a partner. The quality of parenting is not determined by its adherence to social normalcy, and that is a message I suspect many children of single parents would benefit from hearing. Outside of Toy Story, after all, how often do we actually see Hollywood portray healthy single-parent families? It is a common trope in family films to have one parent missing, and to then present the story in such a way where the ‘absence’ must be ‘corrected.’ In some cases, this results in fertile emotional or dramatic material (think of Marlin struggling to do right by his son in Finding Nemo), but for the most part, the message tends to be that there is something inherently wrong with non-nuclear families, and that is a negative stereotype. What frustrates me so much about Despicable Me 2 is that, coming out of the original, they have the absolute perfect opportunity to avoid these pitfalls, and explore the process of single parenting through Gru and the girls.
Gru is established to be a good father, after all, and the girls are shown to be extremely happy with him in their life. What is missing there? I cannot tell you, because the film does not defend or develop its own thematic core. The entire arc basically boils down to the youngest daughter, Margo, mentioning twice that she wants a mom, Gru resisting outside efforts to make him date on two or three occasions, and then Gru and Lucy suddenly falling in love and getting married. That’s it, not that there is time for anything more substantial with so much of the film being given over to the minions. In any case, simply declaring the arc of the picture, without depicting any clear reason why Gru and the girls need a mother figure to feel ‘whole,’ is not only lazy writing, but disrespectful to the single parents and children in the audience who have probably heard this insipid Hollywood drivel far too much in the past, and might like to identify with a meaningful representation of their lives for once.
Now, will kids genuinely be aware of the problems I have outlined here? No, most likely not. But quality still matters, because whether or not a child is critically cognizant of the media they watch, this material still affects them. Despicable Me 2 is empty calories, loads of bright colors and simplistic slapstick without anything particularly beneficial to hang it on, and while that hurts children more as a trend than a singular experience, I cannot in good conscience recommend the film when it so thoughtlessly plays in to this trend.
Despicable Me 2 is not a bad film; there are legitimately amusing bits here and there, and while I think the character arcs are recklessly underdeveloped, there is nothing here children will be worse off for seeing. But neither is there anything that would do a child any good, and that is the harmful trend I speak of. Especially in these animated sequels, Hollywood is conditioning children to expect hollow, easily digestible mediocrity, and if this really is all the industry is interested in offering, I wonder how a kid who only watches the new, major releases can be expected to grow up into a critically discerning adult viewer. Media is important. It is one of the major filters through which we experience the world around us, and I feel very, very strongly that this should be reflected in children’s entertainment. On its own, Despicable Me 2 is just a lazy, disappointing sequel. As part of the larger cinematic experience we are collectively living through at this moment in time, though, it acts as further affirmation that Hollywood animation is growing increasingly useless, and that children and families are being treated with active commercial contempt. That depresses me, and I can ensure you I feel no joy whatsoever in reporting depression as my core emotional takeaway from a sequel to a film I loved.