I’m sure this is way too late for any kind of meaningful, relevent review, but with The Secret Life of Pets theatrical release behind us now, I feel now was as good a time as any to talk about my issues with Illumination Entertainment, as well as its “magnum opus.” Massive air-quotes implied.
Chris Meledandri founded the production company back in 2007, and its first ever film was, you guessed it, Despicable Me.
From the trailers, the plot looked basic enough: Steve Carell plays Gru, an evil mastermind intent on being, well, despicable. He has a bunch of little minions who look like mutant Kellogg’s Corn Pops, and he likes to steal things for the hell of it.
I went to go see the film particularly after the raving reviews from friends, family, and critics. “It taps into your inner child,” people said. “It was so much fun,” they said. “The littlest girl screams, ‘It’s so fluffy, I’m going to die!’ and isn’t that just adorable?” they said.
Well, with the exception of that last one, I fervently disagree.
While I can accept that something like My Neighbor Totoro is a great film and just isn’t my personal taste, I genuinely don’t understand why anyone loves Despicable Me.
There is nothing despicable about the character of Gru. His character makes virtually no sense, and the only impression I got of him was that he’s too awkward to function. This is probably Steve Carell’s flattest, least funny delivery; for me, he’s either really awkward funny or just really stiffly awkward, and here, it was most definitely the latter.
His minions are obnoxious. They just chatter and say random words with no rhyme or reason to them (which, contrary to popular belief, is not automatically funny), and they are a fairly obvious rip-off of the Toy Story aliens. This is especially bitterly funny today, given that The Secret Life of Pets looks to be a straightforward rip-off of Toy Story as a whole. The only appreciable difference is that it involved pets, rather than toys.
Literally; a dog gets replaced by what he assumes his owner thinks is a better dog, here to ruin his perfect life. Shenanigans ensue when said new pet gets him into trouble and takes him far from home.
Yes! Yes it f@&%ing is! That was the first thing I thought when I first saw the damn trailer!
Pixar should totally sue over this. I’m not even kidding.
Anyway, Jason Segel plays Gru’s….rival? – I guess that’s what he is – named Victor/Vector, an obnoxious, pandering “cool kid” who’s more of a dork than he realizes. Take a drink every time a character from Illumination Entertainment films air guitars or acts like a stupid hipster douchebag. It’s not funny, and it’s definitely not endearing; it’s just annoying.
He’s also virtually identical to their Captain Planet villain in The Lorax, and even to their version of the Onceler.
The little girls are probably the best part of the movie, although I don’t know why they have old lady names. I guess that’s the joke, that the orphanage cares so little about them that they gave them names that most kids would probably make fun of them over, but if that’s so, it’s not communicated very well. It’s just a pointless quirk, really.
Agnes is adorable and Margo is understandably jaded by the system in which she has to live, but Edith? Outside of the generic “rebellious” attitude, she has no character to speak of. She’s simply “there” to fill a slot, I guess.
Poor middle children. You never catch a break, am I right?
Gru ends up adopting the girls to help with his scheme of…stealing the moon, but then starts begrudgingly falling in love with them.
I’m not opposed to a “type” of story like this; after all, parental love doesn’t get a ton of focus in kid and family movies. It’s just that everything about Gru is forced, from his awkward fliting with Ms. Hattie to the way he says “liiiiiiiiiightbulb” every time he gets an idea. If he was charmingly awkward, this might work better, but I think the writer just wanted to make him as weird as possible.
Also, we never address his issue with parental neglect, or the real reason why he’s chosen to be so tepidly despicable. We’re just shown the scenes and then…nothing.
That may make sense on some level, but it’s not the strongest or most compelling motivation. I sympathized more with the tortured serial killer from Red Dragon than I did with this droning, walking Eastern European stereotype.
The weakest part of the film has to be when Gru’s sidekick, Dr. Nefario, who barely shows up at all, finally decides to try to get the orphanage to come take the girls back. Gru has been warming up to them so much, and seems to have no real reason to fight his emotions, and yet, as the girls are upset and begging him not to send them back, he just…stands there. He doesn’t even seem to be hesitant so much as he seems to have just gone brain-dead. It’s not really clear why he’s doing and saying nothing because, again, he’s a really weak character. The girls have every right to hate and not trust him for this, because at least they seem emotionally and intelligently competent on some level.
But everything is resolved. Happy ending, whoop-de-fricken-doo.
I kind of hate this movie.
I don’t hate it as much as The Lorax adaptation, which devotes precisely 5 minutes to the original book’s story and message before spiraling into grandiose stupidity, chock full of celebrity-voice, stereotyping, and ironically moronic evil corporation bullshit. That was an insult to its source material, so it is far more egregious and odious in comparison to this film personification of white-bread, crust-cut toast.
But it still highlights a trend that I would like people to acknowledge: Illumination Entertainment is lazy. They leap-frog off the shoulders of more talented writers and studios in order to pander and reap the full rewards.
For evidence, look at The Lorax. Look at the minions themselves, who got a whole movie despite being unable to hold it up on their own, strictly because they were so popular in the marketing.
Two things that make The Lorax even more hateful: the swami swans, humming fish, and bar-ba-loots are basically just the minions with a texture swap; and all of the stupid, detrimental, hilariously ironic marketing for The Lorax – indeed, the very reason for its existence – was to raise enough money to fund Despicable Me 2 and Minions.
If you like these movies, I can’t fault you. I don’t understand the appeal of Despicable Me AT ALL, but if it makes you happy, or you get something out of it that I don’t, that’s great. And of course, when I have kids, I would never keep them from watching something unless it is total garbage that I’m sure is actively making them stupider.
*cough* Lorax *cough cough*
I’m also not crazy about the animation style they use, but maybe I just associate it with their ridiculous, insipid writing.
…And I feel the need to point out that pandering isn’t always a terrible thing.
But this production company is a poser. Even their new logo card, with the minion squeeing and shouting “Illumination! Illuminatioooooooooooon!” is so obviously pandering and thoughtless. It’s like they really think that’s what everyone is thinking anyway. “Oh look, minions! Let’s buy everything with their faces on it! OH MY GOD!”
They are certainly no Disney or Pixar. I barely respect Blue Sky Studios and their abject refusal to let Ice Age die after a decade or so, but even they are not so mediocre yet inexplicably successful as Illumination Entertainment.
And I say this completely ignorant of any charity or other good work they do. I’m not judging them based on any moral grounds, but strictly by their work as an animation studio.
Only time will tell if they stop being lazy and actually come into their own. They have a few Dr. Seuss titles in development, and I can only shudder with dread to think of how they will mutilate those beloved works. But then again, the live action movies are pretty terrible, so they can only do so much worse than those.
All I can do is roll my eyes at all of the praise critics and audiences alike give their works. Even before The Secret Life of Pets came out, many t.v. shows and news outlets were already stroking its ego, and I think that is all thanks to people having this strange, reverent regard for Despicable Me. As if it’s anywhere near as groundbreaking as Frozen, or even Toy Story, the movie that this latest “romp” is so shamelessly copying…twenty years later.
Hell, people were angry when Pharrell William’s upbeat but extremely generic song “Happy” was beaten by “Let It Go” at the Oscars! It’s the perfect metaphor for the first Despicable Me movie: sugary, feel-good, but ultimately devoid of any real substance or creativity.
I try not to ruin Despicable Me for the people I have met in person who like it, but it’s not just that I don’t see what the big deal is. I feel like I’m in Oz, and somehow, I’m one of the only people who sees that man behind the curtain.
And when I try to point it out to someone, they just shrug or say, “But I love the illusion! It’s soooooo pretty!”
I can only sigh.
….at least Sing looks decently original, I guess. But I liked The Secret Life of Pets better when it was called Toy Story, and not just because I was growing up with Andy, Woody, and Buzz when the films came out. There was something there that The Secret Life of Pets doesn’t have: a greater message about growing up and the passage of time. It’s about enjoying the present, and acknowledging and honoring your childhood without holding onto it too tightly.
*None of the pictures belong to me. You figure out who they belong to, because I am loathe to give any sort of real credit to these coat-tail riders.