Three films that I’ve caught over the course of the year today, all of the child-friendly variety.
Despicable Me 3
Life is all swell for reformed supervillain Gru (Steve Carell) and new wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig), living with adopted children Margo (Mirada Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Nev Scharrel) and working for the “Anti Villain League”. But after a botched operation results in the escape of 80’s themed bad guy Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), the newly-weds are fired. At a low ebb, Gru is stunned to discover a long-lost brother (also Carell) and must evaluate whether he is truly hero or still just a villain.
I said before seeing #2 in this franchise that I worried about fatigue, cashing in, and the general malaise after evident in sequels that don’t have the Pixar brand name on them, but I was thankfully proven wrong that time. And I’ve said before that the Minion craze has its limits. And while Despicable Me 3 has its moments, it has all of those problems in places too.
The attempt to freshen things up by having Gru be an outright hero is nixed fairly quickly, and from there we’re into the realm of “Will he/won’t he?” in terms of his potential return to villainy. The relationship with rather, ahem, “quirky” brother Dru is a bit random – he seems to be in the story because you need to start throwing in more family characters in a third one as much as anything else – and a sub-plot involving Lucy trying to be a stepmother is really hit and miss. Randomly enough, we also have little Agnes looking for a unicorn to fill in some screen-time. So, in story terms, the fatigue is very obvious, as is the space filling.
If you’re looking for things to alleviate that, well step forward Trey Parker, in one of the last franchises I would have expected someone of his background to show up. His Bratt is a delight, an 80’s child star turned adult delinquent, a bizarrely effective supervillain who blows bubble gum wile dancing around his heist jobs. The film is at its comedic best whenever Bratt is just talking to himself, and at times the rest of the cast appear to be intruding on his good time. And there are the Minions of course, back to being their charming selves, and doing what they do best by inhabiting small chunks of screen time, as filler material in-between scenes.
Visually, it’s the same thing that we’ve seen before from Illumination, with this genre of animation long since past the point where this level of artistic detail is something to truly go gaga over (even 1995 was doing it better really). And Pharrell is back again with “Yellow Light”, but it doesn’t really hold a candle to “Happy”.
This is a franchise that will keep going and going of course, as long as little kids continue to go mad for those weird yellow dwarfs (a sequel to their rather tired adventure is likely to come first of course), but Despicable Me has reached the end of the line with me I feel. Three is a good number to end it on, regardless of whatever bits of levity briefly lift up the overall quality of this production.
The Lego Ninjago Movie
The citizens of Ninjago City live in constant fear of the latest assault from Lord Garmadon (Justin Theorux), often taking their frustration out on his estranged son Lloyd (Dave Franco). Unbeknownst to all of them, Lloyd is the Green Ninja, one of five Ninjas who use their martial arts skills and technological behemoths to fight the dark lord in secret. Guided by wise Master Wu (Jackie Chan), the team are soon sent on a difficult journey, where Lloyd is forced to deal with the fractured relationship he has with his father.
Following the success of the other two franchises using this artistic gimmick, you would start to wonder if Lego Movie’s are served well by jumping from property to property in an effort to keep things fresh. Because the visual element of the Lego movies is already starting to look a bit tired and jaded, a Michael Bay-esque hurricane of blocks and explosions, forming and reforming at speed, that sort of just makes your eyes want to vomit. Sure, that sense of creativity can still be ascertained – just about – but ultimately we’ve had three films that include large Lego cityscapes being torn apart and put back together again.
So, Ninjago needs to save itself in other ways and it kind of does? I’m not familiar with the TV series this is at least partially based on, but it’s a serviceable send-up of the ninja genre, injected with a healthy dose of pop culture references and somewhat absurdist humour (like Garmadon’s insistence that his sons name is pronounced “Le-loyd”). Indeed, the film makes you laugh if nothing else, my particular favourite being the clearly a robot and trying very badly to hide the fact White Ranger, and his collection of old ninja movies (that includes the classic I Told You You’re Wasting Your Time I’ve Left That Life Behind Me). The film is voice-acted well and scored competently, and while the unfolding story is predictable – intentionally so given the send-up that is happening – it’s something you can nod along to for an hour and a half.
Where the Ninjago Movie is actually sort of thoughtful is what it is seemingly trying to say about the nature of sundered father-son relationships. Lloyd wants a father, but is embittered at the villain his father really is; Garmadon has a hole in his life, but is so emotionally reckless with people that he can’t fill it. The roles are exaggerated – Garmadon literally has a volcano lair – but you can’t help but be a bit surprised at the way this film comes down on the issue, which appears, essentially, to be an endorsement of no-strings-attached reconciliation with deadbeat fathers.
Kids will presumably love it: the older crowd will wonder if they should have just gone to see Transformers instead, and seen more or less the same visual experience with more human actors (just about). What next for this franchise? Probably more of the same, and that’s not in keeping with good film-making or the ethos of the product on the label.
Paddington Bear (Ben Whishaw) has settled into London life with Mr and Mrs Brown (Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins), daughter Judy (Madeline Harris) and son Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), spreading his own brand of kindness and joy among the neighbourhood – except for cranky Mr Curry (Peter Capaldi). But when washed up actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) steals an antique pop-up book Paddington was hoping to buy for his Aunt Lucy, he finds himself framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and forced to make allies behind bars to clear his name.
It is a joy sometimes to have a film like this to sit back and enjoy. Paul King’s follow-up to the 2014 version of the beloved children’s character – and the first was captivating enough – is actually that rarest of things, a sequel that is better than its original, perhaps because it doesn’t have to dedicate time to setting up the story it wants to tell. Instead, we are just shown this wonderfully positive, endearingly accepting and just nice to watch bear. A film that so emphasises the idea of kindness being a positive force in the community and in society at large is one that deserves some consideration, even if it’s being told through the lens of a clumsy anthropomorphised bear.
The subtler thing here of course is a pro-immigration, pro-tolerance message, that feels especially necessary when one looks at modern-day Britain. Paddington’s multi-ethnic neighbourhood contains the malicious Mr Curry, a reprobate who heads the self-created and fascistic sounding “Neighbourhood Defence Force”, describes Paddington as an “undesirable” and generally acts as a very loud minority that the rest of the residents try to ignore and seem hesitant to speak against. What Paddington is trying to say is not hard to discern, but it’s a rather well-done bit of social commentary.
Beyond that, the film is a delight on every level. The cast is having a ball: Hugh Grant especially throws himself in the role of villainous thespian Phoenix Buchanan (who has utterly mad imaginary conversations with the parts he played in his past) and Brendan Gleeson fits right in as a grizzled prison cook ignorant of the ways of marmalade. It’s written brilliantly, overflowing with warmth, humour and genuine feeling. And the plot, while hardly an earth-shattering example of the genre, is more than enough to keep you engaged, including a number of bizarre heists, a prison movie send-up and a surprisingly well-choreographed finale onboard a speeding train. The film will actually surprise you with the depth of its visual acumen: Paddington cavorts along a pop-up landscape, a prison escape sequence is a nice homage to Wes Anderson and London has never looked better.
A wonderful film, that almost came out too early – it’s perfect Christmas fare – that you should check out if feeling even slightly jaded or fed-up with things. It’s impossible not to like this movie or its title character. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures and StudioCanal).