If Vulture can be said to have any official editorial position, it is that Baby Groot is cute and good. However, in the interest of airing multiple viewpoints on controversial issues, we have decided to give our own Jackson McHenry a platform to air his sincerely held — but wrong — belief that, actually, Baby Groot is bad.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a movie about a group of unlikely space allies fighting space battles and trading space quips, features three separate sequences that revolve around a baby tree. The tree in question is Groot, played by Vin Diesel, who delivers Groot’s only dialogue — “I am Groot” — in every language. A giant talking tree in the first Guardians film, Groot has been reborn as a baby after sacrificing himself to save the rest of his team. He’s cute in an empirical, calculated way, with Disney-like saucer eyes, lil’ paw-like hands and feet, and like the rest of the team, an incongruous taste for ’70s jams. He’s too perfect. You can’t hate Baby Groot, which is exactly why Guardians would be better off without him.
Somewhere around the second of three Baby Groot showcase scenes in Guardians 2, it becomes pretty clear that Baby Groot is holding the film back. He’s a Funko doll — no dimension whatsoever. Like a patient requesting more painkillers, the film cuts to Groot whenever it needs something cute. First the cuteness is endearing; then it’s numbing; eventually it’s just tedious.
In Guardian’s opening credits, Baby Groot dances to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while the rest of the heroes do battle with a gigantic space-slug in the background. It’s a nice concept, just like it was in the Buffy episode “The Zeppo,” and in case you were wondering, the tiny tree does have some moves. The other characters — Chris Pratt doing his best Harrison Ford; Zoe Saldana doing standard-issue space Saldana — occasionally butt in to save Groot from a tentacle or two. This keeps up for the rest of the film. The Guardians get into trouble; Groot remains oblivious, but somehow scrapes through. In one scene, he retrieves a series of items, but not the specific item the other characters need, which is a great shtick you’ve seen in at least ten animated Disney movies. In the crucial showdown, Rocket Racoon gives Groot a bomb and tells him to press one button but not the other. Groot keeps trying to press the wrong button, but (spoiler alert) when it truly matters, he does what’s right.
Often, and not just with Baby Groot, Guardians 2 confuses the concept of a joke for an actual one. Pratt explains his will-they-or-won’t-they relationship with Saldana with a Cheers joke. When given the possibility of creating anything in the universe, he imagines building a giant Pac-Man. The film’s imagination is limited to gesturing at a collection of easily available references. (In case you were worried there wouldn’t be something for middle schoolers to repeat in locker rooms, there is a joke about driving a spaceship with your penis.) To my mind, Baby Groot is the worst of it — a joke that consists of pointing at something you know is cute and saying, “You were right! That is cute!” That’s not flattering, it’s cynical.
Perhaps it’s too much to ask for Guardians 2, which basically just needs to ferry you from one big Marvel installment to the next, to aspire to something more than comfort. The film does what it does, and at this point, railing against the Marvel formula feels as pointless as complaining about the recipe for Starbucks Frappuccino. You might not love it, but who cares? Other people will order it, and for them, it’ll do. But to me, Baby Groot represents Marvel’s worst instincts — the way its films tend toward the unicorn-flavored lowest common denominator. He’s a tree. With big eyes, like a baby. The only salvation? The film’s post-credits scene reveals a Groot who’s grown up into a disgusting teenager. With any luck, the Guardians series has put away childish Groots for good.