DESPICABLE ME (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Rude Humor and mild Action

Directed by: Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud

Written by: Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio

Voices of: Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Miranda Cosgrove, Diana Gaier, Elsie Fisher, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig & Julie Andrews

DESPICABLE ME was released in 2010 to massive financial success, launched the popular yellow-pilled creatures known as Minions, and served as Illumination’s first feature film (the company has since become a major competitor for DreamWorks, Pixar, and Disney). Even though this film made a big impression on the animated film market and audiences, I find DESPICABLE ME to be bit overrated. It wasn’t even the best animated sensitive supervillain film of 2010. That distinction belongs to DreamWorks’ MEGAMIND. However, this film sports colorful animation, some clever jokes, and enough charm to overcome an overly familiar storyline and narrative faults.

Bald supervillain Gru (Steve Carell) has been depressed because another supervillain has recently taken the limelight away from bad guys everywhere by stealing Giza’s Great Pyramid. In order to reign supreme as the greatest supervillain of all-time, Gru decides to enact a plan to steal the moon. To do this, he’ll need to steal a shrink ray from rival villain Vector (Jason Segel) and adopt three orphaned girls Margo, Edith, and Agnes (Miranda Cosgrove, Diana Gaier, and Elise Fisher) to unwittingly assist him. As his plan moves forward, Gru begins to grow a soft spot for his three new daughters, much to the dismay of his mad scientist colleague Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand).

DESPICABLE ME walks the tightrope of trying to be colorful and innocent enough for young children, while also supplying enough dark humor and mature jokes for older viewers to enjoy. While it mostly maintains this balance, things occasionally slip too much into little kid territory. There are really fun jokes revolving around Gru living a totally inappropriate life for a family (including one hilarious bit involving a torture device) and his gradual acceptance of his new children is very cute to watch, but the overall story is too simple and not nearly as clever as it tries to be. The latter is especially epitomized by Jason Segel’s lackluster villain. This antagonist is just plain boring and a would-be conspiracy around him feels like a half-baked development in the proceedings.

Steve Carell’s voice is unrecognizable as Gru, aided by a strange accent. Meanwhile, Cosgrove, Gaier and Fisher are convincing as the three adopted daughters, with Fisher’s adorable Agnes guaranteed to melt even the hardest of hearts. These characters are further aided by vibrant animation that breathes life into a world of supervillainy with regulations. One big plot point revolves around Gru trying to secure a loan from an evil bank to finance his diabolical deeds. The film also succeeds in its yellow pill-shaped Minion moments. Some people may utterly despise the Minions with every fiber of their beings, but I’m in the group that loves these hilarious creations. The Minion scenes have just the right combination of potty humor, immature antics, and fish-out-of-water slapstick.

DESPICABLE ME’s plot may be a bit too basic and the overall film is overrated in the grand scheme of things (MEGAMIND is miles better and its second installment is a bit improvement too). Still, this is a fun piece of family entertainment that’s sure to keep younger viewers occupied, while supplying a decent supply of laughs for teenagers and packing in enough sentimentality for parents (especially seeing that the whole movie revolves around a new parent adjusting to having three new additions to his family and growing a heart). DESPICABLE ME is decent. Not great, not really good…but just decent.

Grade: B-

THE BFG (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Action/Peril, some Scary Moments and brief Rude Humor

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Melissa Mathison

(based on the novel THE BFG by Roald Dahl)

Starring: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall & Bill Hader

Though his novels are magnificently imaginative, author Roald Dahl’s film adaptations seem cursed at the box office. This has occurred numerous times over the decades. Even though it found later success through TV airings and is now considered a timeless classic by many, WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY originally flopped in the theaters (though its lesser Burtonized remake was a success). The same fate befell the creepy THE WITCHES in 1990 and cult favorite JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH in 1996. Not even Steven Spielberg seems immune from the Dahl curse, because his adaptation of THE BFG has recently made headlines for bombing. However, that has nothing to do with the quality of this film itself, because BFG (which stands for Big Friendly Giant, get your mind out of the gutter) is a heartwarming fantasy that’s fun for all ages.

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Set in 1980’s London, THE BFG opens with young orphan Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) awake at the witching hour (3 am). Though she’s suspected his presence many times, Sophie has never actually met the “boogeyman” until tonight. This boogeyman turns out to be a big eared, speech impaired giant (Mark Rylance in a motion capture performance) who takes Sophie back to his cave-like home. Unlike other giants in Giant Country, Sophie’s gigantic captor doesn’t eat children. Instead this Big Friendly Giant (or BFG, as Sophie calls him) opts to eat foul-tasting cucumber-like vegetables and catches dreams for sleeping children. Sophie and the BFG become fast friends, but the fearsome brutish giants begin to suspect that BFG is harboring a new pet…and a potential snack for them.

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BFG’s biggest (pardon the pun) highlights come from the many scenes between Sophie and the main giant. Mark Rylance (who won Best Supporting Actor for his other recent Spielberg outing) is oddly adorable as the naïve, well-intentioned Big Friendly Giant. Having known in advance that Rylance delivered his performance through motion capture, I distinctly recognized his face on this giant character for the entire running time…even if huge ears, frail hair, and a thin chin were morphed into his CGI looks. You have to wonder how much time Rylance spent on the set though, because a majority of the film seems to have young Ruby Barnhill acting against creatures and environments that aren’t really there. Huge props to this child actress, because she puts in a far better performance than one might expect from a kid acting by themselves. This story almost entirely focuses on the friendship of Sophie and Big Friendly Giant, while supporting characters seem to exist merely for jokes and plot devices.

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Weak supporting characters don’t lessen the colorful environments and weird-looking giants that Spielberg brings from the page to the screen. This big-screen BFG is very faithful to the source material, which means that there are magical moments, darker aspects (lines of dialogue referring to the other giants feasting on children), and a timelessly upbeat atmosphere to this fairy tale. That being said, it seems like Spielberg was dialing himself back a bit in THE BFG. With E.T. and his other family films as well as Roald Dahl’s books themselves, there was a sense to treat kids with a level of maturity that was rather unheard of at the time. There were dark, scary threats in these stories (on the page and screen) that made the happy, lighter moments shine even brighter. THE BFG tiptoes around a couple of these more intense areas, with the other giants set up as (literal) big antagonists, but Spielberg seems disinterested in these villains and they seem underused as a result.

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Executed with visual flair, charm, and whimsy, THE BFG is a simple and sweet fantasy-adventure that’s bound to entertain kids, captivate grown-ups through impressive imagery, and feels like a throwback to a better time for live-action kid’s entertainment. Although it doesn’t go as far as it could have in certain areas and resorts to fart humor on a couple of occasions (one joke is actually well set up and executed), THE BFG is an all-around good movie. It’s not one of Spielberg’s best films, but it remains an entertaining fantasy that’s likely to please both adults and children.

Grade: B

RIO 2 (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

Rio2 poster

Directed by: Carlos Saldanha

Written by: Don Rhymer, Carlos Kotkin, Jenny Bicks & Yoni Brenner

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway, Leslie Mann, Bruno Mars, Jemaine Clement, George Lopez, Jamie Foxx, Will.I.Am, Rodrigo Santoro, Tracy Morgan & Miguel Ferrer

As far as family entertainment goes, the first RIO was nothing to write home about. I thought it was a purely middle-of-the-road movie and many better animated productions have come since. That’s why the decision of making a sequel to RIO seems a little weird. It’s not so strange when I took into consideration that the first movie made bank at the box office. RIO was popular for some reason or another, so I guess one could hope that the sequel might try to improve on the former film. RIO 2 flies in a couple of areas and crashes in nearly every other aspect.

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Picking up a few years after the conclusion of RIO, Blu and Jewel (the endangered Macaw couple) are parents to three young birds. Things seem fairly routine and life is good. This changed for Blu when some unexpected evidence surfaces that Blu and Jewel may not be the last of their kind. The family journeys into the Amazon jungles to find a whole flock of Blue Macaws, including Jewel’s long-lost relatives. Blu finds himself drastically out of his domesticated element as he tries to bond with his strict father-in-law. Meanwhile, the scarred Nigel is back for revenge with a poisonous frog sidekick. To make matters even more complicated, humans Linda and Tulio stumble across an illegal logging operation that threatens the trees where the colony lives, all while Blu’s friends hold a auditions for new musical talent.

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That synopsis alone should give you an idea about the main problem with RIO 2. There are four credited screenwriters and the movie jumbles together four different plots. It’s almost as if a different script was written for each storyline and then the studio mixed the pages together. That’s exactly how it felt as I was watching this whole thing play out. The running time may not be excessively long, but the movie did drag. One might find this an odd statement given all the stuff happening, but none of it was given enough time to properly develop or capture the viewer’s interest.

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Credit where credit is due, I was interested during the first 25 minutes of the story and liked the direction things were moving in. Blu trying to impress his newfound relatives, which plays out like MEET THE PARENTS with birds, could be decent enough. Even the idea of Nigel coming back for revenge was entertaining. However, the logging subplot (which introduced an unnecessary second antagonist) had echoes of FERNGULLY (or more recently, AVATAR). The one subplot that didn’t work for me at all were the birds voiced by Jamie Foxx and will.i.am auditioning jungle animals for talent. Every single time those two wise-cracking feathered friends popped up, I felt like letting out a loud groan.

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Speaking of how unfocused the film is. The musical numbers ranged from great to sadly annoying. The film didn’t need a three-minute-long scene of Nigel singing “I Will Survive” with plenty of pop culture references thrown in. The best two songs in the film belong to the jungle birds. There’s also another moment featuring the easily most entertaining character: Gabi the poisonous tree frog. She sings about lamenting how she loves Nigel but is unable to touch him due to her toxic skin condition. The best scenes in the more dull section of the film falling apart all involved Gabi.

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The voice cast all do a decent enough job in reprising their roles, but I didn’t really care about the characters that much this time around. Most of this can primarily be blamed on the sheer familiar storyline. We’ve seen this kind of thing play out in many other movies and adding four different plots didn’t keep my interest, but rather made for a sloppy final product. The film’s visuals are quite beautiful to look at, even if the humans look like they could be rendered a tad more (perhaps Pixar just spoiled us with fantastic animation all these years).

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RIO 2 is harmless kiddie fare that will keep the young ones occupied for just under two hours. However, the predictable plot, lame jokes, muddled execution, and heavy-handed environmental message (that makes FERNGULLY seem subtle in comparison) make this out to be a bit of a chore for the grown ups to endure. Fox is most likely trying to milk a new franchise out of RIO, much like they completely crashed the ICE AGE series into the ground with each sequel. I though the first RIO was a middle-of-the-road experience and RIO 2 does the typical sequel thing (as MUPPETS MOST WANTED says “the sequels never quite as good”) by lowering the quality significantly. RIO 2 doesn’t come recommended at all. If you want a good piece of family entertainment, MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN and MUPPETS MOST WANTED are far more deserving choices than this lame sequel.

Grade: D

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