DESPICABLE ME 2 Review

When a movie only happens because the first was a surprise hit it more times than not has a sense it exists because the iron was hot rather than there being any ideas of value proposed to continue the story. Thus is the dilemma the makers of Despicable Me 2 likely encountered when the small Illumination Entertainment company scored a $540 million worldwide hit with the original film. Naturally, the studio was quick to get to work on a follow-up and now that the minions have become a cultural mainstay with a feature of their own on the way the anticipation for the second installment in what will no doubt become a more extensive series was sky high. The influence of the charming first installment looms over this uneven sequel though and unfortunately that doesn't always bode well as their is plenty going on here, but nothing really feels like it happens. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense if I'm being completely honest because the voice cast is on point, the story is a surprisingly natural extension of where the first one left off and though the animation itself is nowhere up to the standards of titan studios like Pixar, enough care is taken in the execution of the film to include countless side jokes, little details that add real personality to the characters and even a story arc for the minions, but in the end that doesn't make a complete film that is as satisfying as it should be. It is tough to explain and is really disappointing because I genuinely loved the first film and was very much looking forward to this sequel despite the fact I have no small children as excuses to go and see this, but was more than willing to walk up and buy a ticket with my head held high. Maybe it is indeed the fact I had such high expectations going in that I was somewhat let down by what was delivered, but either way it should be understood that Despicable Me 2 is not a bad film by any means, but it is purely an average film that takes advantage of the minion popularity and eager parents willing to shell out money on premium 3D tickets and countless other merchandise opportunities while the film itself feels rushed in all the human aspects it tackled so originally, or at least more interestingly, in the first film.

Gru (Steve Carell) and his girls in Despicable Me 2.
This is a fun, cute film and there is no doubt about that. Even those who don't like it at all would probably be hard pressed to say either of those words are unfair to apply to the movie. Picking up where the first film left off our anti-protagonist Gru (Steve Carell) has transitioned well from master villain to caring father. Having taken in the three young, endearingly sweet girls Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Elsie Kate Fisher) Gru has no time for diabolical schemes and puts his whole heart into making sure his children are happy, even going so far as to start a new business making jelly that has his evil assistant Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) has become disenchanted with and is ready to move on to better opportunity where he can do what he does best. As these things go an agent from the "Ant-Villain League" shows up in the form of Lucy (Kristen Wiig) and pulls Gru back into the world of heroes and villains as a new mastermind has been brought to the league's attention and they need the expertise of one of the best to catch the worst. This is all well and good and the approach the film takes to the set-up of Gru and Lucy teaming up to figure out who the new baddie on the block might be also creates ample opportunity to introduce plenty of subplots that tie-in to the films soft and happy conclusion, but despite the fact this is all expertly set-up we can see the developments coming from a mile away. Some plot strands even begin, but go nowhere as they seem to have been forgotten by the time the film reaches its climactic sequence. We are led to believe at one point a certain character voiced by Ken Jeong is in on the evil plot if not possibly in charge of it, but he ends up serving no bigger purpose than to provide Gru with a wig that helps his singular dating experience go awry. The central focus becomes a restaurant owner named Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt) who reminds Gru of an iconic evil villain who he has both a personal and professional interest in doing away with.

One of the most appealing aspects of the original film was that approach of humanizing a man, a character that is normally dismissed (especially in animated films or any film aimed at kids) as nothing more than an evil archetype. The film took the saying, "two sides to every story" quite literally and jumped at every opportunity this premise presented them with. It was an unexpectedly insightful and subversive experiment that worked better than anyone could have expected. This created an edge to the film that allowed it to be able to get away with taking the established system and formula of animated films and throwing it out the window by giving the bad guy a moral dilemma was fresh and exciting; even for those not generally in the target audience for these kinds of movies. At a certain point we pretty much accept the fact that films intended for the younger sets will have no way of surprising those of us that have seen a countless number of them and have picked up on the way they work. Despicable Me was able to prove that theory wrong by genuinely packing in enough quirkiness, fleshed-out characters, and interesting story elements that it served as a brisk yet completely entertaining ride. While the sequel has its moments and obviously knows well enough to give the minions more screen time it doesn't give us the great creations in character the first film did, even resorting to limit the appeal of the three girls that in the first film were just as interesting as Gru and his rival Vector. There is no lack of imagination or inventiveness here, but it is going in all the wrong places and is too sporadic to really contribute to an overall greater good. The villain, though worth a chuckle in concept, isn't as diabolically likable and is rather bland as we aren't given the opportunity to really get to know him or his motivation. I liked that that the film attempted to develop Gru's girls more, especially Margo who is becoming interested in boys, but even that storyline goes nowhere and is used more as a contrivance to set-up the final act. Agnes is still adorable though, even rivaling the minions when she is on screen.

The Minions steal the show and are headed towards a solo adventure in December of next year.
The real problem the makers now face is balancing the screen time given to the minions with the rest of the cast. When the minions are on screen their antics and gibberish talk is consistently hilarious. There is even a gag late in the film where they re-create an early 90's r&b vibe by doing their rendition of All 4 One's "I Swear", that had me nearly rolling in the aisle. It is when the non-minion characters appear on-screen that it now feels they are attempting to play catch up on just how entertaining they can be and hoping that they prove as engaging as the minions. As much as I love the minions this does pose a problem, especially considering how well I enjoy the company of the other characters as well, but was let down here due to that bland factor they seem to be suffering from. Still, they are all expertly voiced with Carell turning in a wonderfully exaggerated performance that never fails to deliver a one-liner or genuine piece of dialogue in just the right way. Another of the elements that made the first film feel so fresh was that it didn't fill the voice cast with famous names simply to talk in their recognizable tones and get paid, but that they really dug in and were committed to making something fun and derivative of everything else. Even the animation style was different from most mainstream, big-budget animated films that lent the film a different tone and when paired with the interesting accent Carell created for Gru it felt all the more like we were watching something with real effort put into it.

Maybe it is simply the fact we are now accustomed to these qualities that they don't stand out as much, but along with Carell both Russell Brand and the young ladies who breathe life into Gru's girls maintain the same qualities from the first while the newcomers are a bit more subjective. Kristen Wiig does a predictably great job in making the female lead a lot of fun and someone we believe could fall for our newly minted hero while Benjamin Bratt does what he can to give Eduardo a distinctive voice. Having been brought in late to replace Al Pacino on the film I don't blame Bratt for the issues with the new villain as they are more script-level issues than anything else. I was only hoping this new rival might prove as charming and enlightening as the main antagonistic hero in the first film. Still, despite the fact Despicable Me 2 doesn't carry the same emotional weight or exude as many charms as the original it does give us more minions and a nicely paced 98-minute movie that could have been much lazier and made just as much money. Kudos for trying, but it is rare lightning strikes twice and that remains true so far with this franchise.