...shining light on the media, one review at a time
Despite an increasingly relativistic culture, many modern films still present the traditional struggle of good versus evil. The problem with the majority of these movies is that the “good” characters are becoming so sullied that distinguishing them from the evil characters is difficult. The shrinking difference between the sides is making films too complicated—who are viewers supposed to root for? Why should they care?
People go to movies to relax and be entertained, right? They don’t want to think. The easiest solution to this growing problem of relativism in movies, then, is to dispense with the dividing line completely. Make the villain the good guy. Problem solved!
With their fresh young minds and open acceptance of nearly everything that looks fun and colorful, kids are the ideal target audience for this experiment in simplification. Sadly, the first big budget offering of this new breed of children’s movie was a box office success, despite unashamedly advertising its wrong-is-right bent by the title, Despicable Me.
The allure of wrong without consequences still going strong, youngsters and their parents can now head to the theater for more with Despicable Me 2 (DM2). Will this sequel turn the tide and revert to the old matchless formula of clear good versus evil, with good as the ultimate victor? With a plot that would allow for just that, DM2 instead follows its own formula from the first film—violence, crudity, and a distasteful blend of moral soup, all in the name of family fun.
Former villain Gru has hung up his villainous arsenal to devote himself to his new role in life—fatherhood. For a guy who used to hurt people for a living, Gru makes a surprisingly doting father, showering love and affection on his three adopted girls. Going legit is not easy, but Gru gives it a shot by trying to develop a line of jellies and jams he plans to sell.
Not every villain has retired, however, and the world is in danger from one who stole a formula that transforms any creature into a monster of destruction. Busy celebrating his youngest daughter’s birthday, Gru is blissfully unaware of the world at risk until he gets kidnapped by an agent with the Anti-Villain League and taken to AVL headquarters.
The leader of AVL asks Gru, as an expert former villain himself, to assist in the tracking and capture of the criminal mastermind behind this latest diabolical plot. Initially, Gru is reluctant to get involved, but when his jellies business idea goes south, he decides to join up.
Gru is “back in the game,” but this time on the side of the good guys. Instead of forming a nefarious plan himself, he needs to spot the grand evildoer and stop him before he has a chance to take over the world. What seems like an easy job becomes complicated when Gru’s little yellow minions start disappearing and Gru begins to have feelings for his new AVL partner, Lucy Wilde. In the end, love just might conquer all, even a crusty former super villain.
Sound sweet? DM2 is anything but. The filmmakers’ attempts to extrapolate a message of love (romantic and familial, in this case) fail more completely than the rather pitiful effort to do the same (with familial love) in the first Despicable Me picture. In the original film, the failure came with the overt condoning of wrong throughout the story that could not be undone with a few cute lines from some not-so-innocent girls. In DM2, the problems are much the same, since the love that is supposedly the victor is tarnished by the shaky characters who inconsistently express a highly conditional form of love.
For example, the central romance of the picture develops between Gru and Lucy. At their initial meeting, however, these two attack each other with various weapons. Lucy’s are the most successful. After mercilessly tazing Gru, she proceeds to hit him with a car and roughly crunch him into a trunk. Throughout the film Lucy does enough damage with her arsenal, as well as her Judo-influenced chops and kicks, to make her nearly as dangerous as the recognized villains. She seems to have the mentality to match, since she confesses to getting a “buzz” from her mistreatment of Gru and his minions.
Perhaps Lucy and Gru are indeed a perfect match, since Gru is of villainous temperament himself. Despite his change in home life, Gru has only learned to be kind to a select few—those in his family. Everyone else is apparently fair game for the unkindness and violence that marked Gru’s former profession. As soon as Gru becomes annoyed with anyone (outside his family), he whips out his freezer gun and puts them in their icy place.
Rather than being a positive example of fathers, Gru thus counters his admirable gentleness with his children by setting a wretched pattern of behavior for them to observe and follow. Gru’s nastier actions and retaliations, as in the first DM are never condemned, by rather encouraged and applauded (especially by his daughters, who always seem to enjoy his villainous behavior).
Milking inappropriate material for entertainment and enjoyment is the name of the game in DM2, with audience laughter as the measure of success. The degree and amount of cartoon violence in DM2 does not quite reach the level found in the first DM, but is still enough violence to rival most PG-13 action films. No, the violence in DM2 is not as graphic in the bloody, realistic sense of an action flick. The danger of this cartoon violence, however, is arguably greater. In DM2, the violence is just as serious (characters are kicked, slapped, hit by cars, blown up in explosions, shot by darts, etc.), and the children viewers are far more vulnerable.
Any parent knows that young kids spend most of their time watching and learning. Masters of imitation, they are likely to try what they see on screen in DM2 with horrifying results. For the kids who won’t attempt such things, they will still observe and learn what the film teaches—that violence is ultimately harmless (the characters are never terminally injured) and enormously funny.
DM2 does an equally thorough job of sending children the same message about crude behavior and humor. Gru’s minions are supposed to be cute, but their (and the film’s) obsession with rude noises, body humor, and self-centered mistreatment of each other prevents them from being anything more than a parent’s worst nightmare when their kids watch this movie and run around imitating the minions. Such imitations are likely to include “fart guns,” giggling over any reference to “bottoms” (DM2 follows the original DM by actually showing the naked buttocks of a minion at one point), and an inclination to hit and kick others.
Beyond just the minions, other offensive moments include a man reading a newspaper while sitting on a toilet, a joke about a dog relieving himself on a bush, a man undulating his bare chest, bottom-bumping (once between Gru and a nun), body-emphasizing dancing, and the list goes on.
Near the conclusion of DM2, one of the assistant villains seems to reach the limits of what he will do for the sake of evil. This character, who at one point says that he misses “being evil,” eventually changes his colors and helps Gru stop the diabolical plan. This seemingly redemptive twist, however, is shot to pieces when the character explains his change of heart by saying, “I’m happy to create an evil army to destroy the world, but nobody messes with my family.”
This statement is a perfect representation of the problems that cause DM2 to self-destruct. Noble and right in this movie is always combined with disgusting and wrong. The two blended together cannot result in anything but an ambivalent moral mess.
Gru may no longer be interested in wreaking havoc on the world, but the Despicable Me series is still up to that villainous task. In this case, the aim is not to turn cute little yellow minions into uncontrollable forces of destruction, but to turn your kids into veritable monsters who crave evil and shun what is right. Unchecked, the results of DM2 on your kids will indeed be despicable.
“The wise fear the Lord and shun evil,
but a fool is hotheaded and yet feels secure.” – Proverbs 14:16 (NIV)