Despicable Me 3

Cast: (voiced by) Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Trey Parker, Miranda Cosgrove, Steve Coogan, Jenny Slate, Dana Gaier, Julie Andrews

Directors: Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda

Writers: Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio

Although I was never a big fan of Despicable Me, I could understand the appeal. It had a fun idea that allowed room for both humour and sentiment, it was well animated and had some good performances, and the Minions in particular were enjoyable in their scene-stealing moments. Despicable Me 2 was serviceable as a sequel but otherwise forgettable. It lacked the novelty of the original, its humour got more childish and unimaginative, and the popularity of the Minions led to the expansion of their roles, at which point they started to feel a little much. When Minions came along I ended up not seeing it because I was about as interested in watching the Minions in their own movie as I would if they were the Oompa Loompas or the aliens in Toy Story. They’re fine in brief segments, but not as protagonists in a feature-length narrative. Now, with Despicable Me 3, it feels to me like this franchise has seriously run out of steam.

Gru, having left his villainous ways behind him, is now a member of the Anti-Villain League with his wife Lucy and is tasked with stopping Balthazar Bratt, a former child TV star turned supervillain. Gru is able to foil Bratt’s plan to steal the world’s largest diamond but fails to catch him, leading to Gru and Lucy being dismissed from their jobs. Shortly after informing his daughters Margo, Edith, and Agnes of their termination, Gru receives an invitation to fly to Freedonia (Land of the Brave and Free!) to meet Dru, his long-lost twin brother. The family meets Dru at his estate and learn that he is charming, handsome and fabulously wealthy. Later Dru reveals to Gru that the source of his wealth is their father, who was in fact a legendary supervillain. Dru enlists Gru to return to his old ways and to teach him how to follow their father in his footsteps. Gru however, desperate to get him and Lucy their old jobs back, decides to take advantage of Dru’s resources to catch Bratt before he can proceed with his villainous plot.

With a story about three adoptive daughters in the first film and one that ended with Gru falling in love and getting married in the second, it’s very clear that Despicable Me is a series very much about family and that continues in this film. Here Gru is reunited with a brother he never knew he had and gets to learn more about himself and where he came from while bonding with this person who is so different from him in so many ways and yet in many other ways so identical. Lucy meanwhile is realising that by marrying Gru she also married his three daughters and is struggling to step into the role of their mother. Either or both of these stories could have been interesting and touching enough to make for an enjoyable family movie. The trouble is that Despicable Me targets itself towards a very young demographic and is ill-equipped to tackle these stories with the maturity they warrant. This isn’t to say that the stories cannot be made accessible to young children, but when a movie elects to open up with a fart joke during the production company’s logo, I think that sends a clear message about the kind of tone the movie is going for.

Now, if a movie doesn’t care about nuance and just wants to keep an audience of six-year-olds entertained for a couple of hours, that’s fine. But I don’t think that Despicable Me 3 does that particularly well. The story they’ve put together with its points about Gru and Lucy’s concerns for the future with the loss of their jobs and the family dynamics is just not engaging for young viewers. The characters are not rich enough and their problems are not relatable enough. There are a couple of sub-plots that might catch children’s interest like Agnes’ search for her very own unicorn and the Minions’ misadventures in prison and a TV talent show, but they’re so disconnected from the main story that if either or both plots were removed entirely barely a single thing would change. The movie would be less fun, considering that those two subplots contain the film’s best moments (as annoying as the Minions can be, even I had to chuckle during their rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan), but otherwise the same beats of the main stories would still play out in the same way. It also doesn’t help that the main villain is one big joke about a the 80’s, decade about which little kids are pretty much clueless.

More than anything Despicable Me 3 is a guaranteed paycheck for the studio. Even the cast seemed largely disinterested, especially Trey Parker who turned in his most generic South Park voice for a movie that’s about two MPAA ratings below what he needs to excel. Carell does well enough for Gru to remain an entertaining character but he doesn’t bring anything new or surprising to his performance despite having an entire second character to play. The movie is bright, noisy, and recognisable enough that kids will flock to the theatre to see it and will probably even enjoy it. What the studio either doesn’t realise or doesn’t care about though is that, in the long run, those kids are not going to embrace this film because it doesn’t offer them anything worth returning to. There are no valuable lessons to take away, no unforgettable moments that demand to be relived and no qualities that make this movie rewarding to an older audience. Any attempt this movie makes to be more grown-up backfires because it simply isn’t smart, competent or mature enough to handle that kind of material.


The Secret Life of Pets

Cast: (voiced by) Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Steve Coogan, Ellie Kemper, Bobby Moynihan, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hanniball Buress, Jenny Slate, Albert Brooks

Directors: Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney

Writers: Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio

In the current climate of children’s animation where recent hits include such movies as Inside Out and Zootropolis, the standard, and consequently the level of expectation, has never been higher. Not only were both of these movies wildly entertaining, but they also told smart and multifaceted stories with challenging and compelling themes that resonated strongly with children and grown-ups alike. The Secret Life of Pets is not one of them. It is a cute and fun movie that is enjoyable for audiences to watch, which is enough if all you seek is a fun and pleasing distraction for your kids. Very few viewers will be moved or astounded by what they see in this film but plenty of them will have a laugh and will delight in looking at all the cute, well-designed animals that get drawn into the story. It’s the movie that children will like while they’re watching it but won’t remember after it’s done.

A terrier called Max lives with his owner Katie in an apartment and their lives are just about perfect. That is until Katie adopts Duke, a large dog from the pound, who then starts to take up Max’s space and Katie’s attention. A jealous Max tries to leave Duke stranded in the middle of the city but things go wrong when they both lose their collars and are then caught by animal control. The dogs are rescued by a psychopathic rabbit named Snowball who then tries to recruit them in his crusade against humanity. The two have to work together to escape Snowball’s crazed army and find their way home. Meanwhile Gidget, a Pomeranian with a crush on Max, notices that he is missing and forms a ragtag team of pets, including Chloe the tabby cat, Norman the guinea pig and Tiberius the red-tailed hawk, to help her find and rescue him before Katie gets home.

The plot is essentially Toy Story with pets. The protagonist who enjoys a perfect relationship with his master, the new guy who upsets the status quo, the bungled plan that results in them both getting separated from the master; it’s all there. However, whereas the journey in Toy Story had stakes, The Secret Life of Pets does not. The dangers Max and Duke encounter, such as a ruthless street gang of cats and a giant, deadly snake, are greatly exaggerated, resulting in an adventure that feels more like a cartoon than Toy Story ever did. There is little emotional weight or tension attached to their struggle and little risk taken in the story. This isn’t to say that the adventure isn’t fun to watch or that the characters they encounter aren’t entertaining, just that it is not the thrill ride nor the emotional rollercoaster that some of the best animations in recent years have proven to be. There isn’t a larger story being told beyond that of two dogs trying to find their way home but it’s still a story that will keep you entertained for a couple of hours.

Max is a relatable enough protagonist that following him around isn’t a bore. His function in the story however is essentially to serve as a vessel for the audience which means that he has to play it straight most of the time. Therefore most of the laughs in this movie come from the side characters. One notable example is Kevin Hart’s Snowball, the manic bunny rabbit on a homicidal rampage against human beings. Another is Jenny Slate’s Gidget, the intensely enamoured dog who is thoroughly prepared to turn the city upside down in pursuit of her beloved Max. My favourite was Albert Brooks’ Tiberius, a furtive hawk who must team up with the pets out of necessity and who must constantly restrain himself from hunting them. While I don’t expect any of these characters to become household names in the near future, they served the roles they needed to serve and were fun to watch.

When compared to the remarkable works produced by Disney, Pixar and Studio Ghibli, The Secret Life of Pets does not rank highly. It is not a particularly smart, creative or groundbreaking movie. It doesn’t really offer anything that you will not have seen before nor is there anything truly valuable for either children or adults to take away from it. However if a 90-minute distraction is all that you want, then this is the movie for you. It is likeable, harmless and fun. It may not be Toy Story, but few movies are. The Secret Life of Pets may not have any innovative ideas, inventive imagination or deep meanings but it has colourful characters, amusing gags and neat designs. With the right expectations, those can be enough for an audience. It is not a movie that demands to be seen but, if you’re looking to kill some time, there are worse ways to spend an afternoon.