Despicable Me 2 doesn’t quite have the same charm as Despicable Me. It’s not that there’s any aspect of the production that is noticeably weaker, it’s just that the original film had a much stronger hook. The story of a supervillain who adopts three young girls as a means to an end, only to find himself coming to care for those kids, might seem a bit cliché (okay, it might sound a lot cliché), but it worked because the film had a solid emotional core.
Despicable Me 2 doesn’t have the same emotional core or stakes. There are subplots and character development (with the sequel going to a lot of effort to make sure almost every returning character has something to do), but the stakes don’t seem quite as high. It’s stunningly well-animated, it’s consistently funny and the cast are as charming as ever, but it just feels a tiny bit shallower than the first film.
The central storyline of Despicable Me 2 has Gru recruited by the Anti-Villain League to investigate a mysterious new evil genius operating out of the Paradise Mall. Coming to their attention for stealing the moon (“I put it back!” he protests), Gru is positioned as an inside man to determine which member of the mall community is up to no good. (And conducting illegal genetic experimentation.) He is paired with Agent Lucy Wilde on the assignment, and sparks (and lipstick tasers) are soon flying.
There’s no real conflict here. Gru likes Lucy. Lucy likes Gru. The only real question is whether they’ll work up the courage to admit it to one another. Given that Gru has already committed to establishing family for himself, there’s never any real doubt that the pair will work past their issues and that they’ll eventually figure out that they are meant to be together. It just makes the whole exercise seem a little rote.
Then again, the story was hardly the main appeal of the original Despicable Me. The sequel looks just as good as the original, with a CGI animation style which evokes more classic cartoons. The characters are all stylised, the actions exaggerated and the humour decidedly physical – creating the impression that Despicable Me 2 is a Looney Tunes cartoon animated using computers. The movie’s best gags tend to be visual and physical.
My own favourite joke being a supervillain access code that has to be keyed into the floor in the tune of La Cucaracha. Although I do have a soft spot for the visual depiction of the death of the famous Mexican supervillain El Macho. He died, we’re assured, in “the most macho way possible”, a sequence rendered with a very clear affection for over-the-top absurdity. Despicable Me 2 is much stronger when engaging in the ridiculous or the absurd than it is when trying to connect with the characters.
This is why the minions are such an essential part of the film’s appeal and success. They are the characters fronting the majority of the advertising, from television spots to posters (and even the credits sequence at the end). Relatively simplistic (and yet wonderfully expressive) in design, the minions lend themselves to the sort of slapstick comedy that the animators do so well. They can’t quite articulate words, but they can gesture and emote (and also snicker) with the very best of them.
The best sequences in the film use the minions shrewdly. There’s an ill-advised undercover attempt to infiltrate the stronghold of the movie’s villain. There are several delightfully over-the-top kidnapping attempts. One sequence even features a rather strange little minion island paradise, recalling Grant Morrison’s 52 storyline centred on a tropical island retreat for kidnapped supervillains. Despicable Me 2 never allows the minions to drown out the other characters, but they are used very well.
The sequel ramps things up a notch by introducing evil!minions, which are a slightly different variation on the design. It’s very easy to take computer-generated animation for granted these days, but the work here is exemplary. Indeed, the design of these evil!minions is striking. They’re consciously designed to be more detailed than the regular variety. They have beautifully animated hair, their purple skin is textured slightly differently, their arms trail on the ground, and their teeth are always visible.
The groups sequences featuring these monsters are fun, with a great deal of attention paid to them. That said, perhaps the minions represent part of the problem with Despicable Me 2. The minions in Despicable Me were something of a hilarious sideshow, a comedy supporting cast who didn’t really have their own arc or storyline. They are much more important here. They are given stuff to do, and made the focus of various sinister plots.
However, Despicable Me 2 has a bit of difficulty acknowledging or reconciling that. The minions are clearly more important than comic relief, but the film still doesn’t treat them as fully-formed characters. Dr. Nefario is outraged when the villain of the film moves against Gru and his three daughters, but nobody seems to bat an eyelid at what is happening to the minions. When Gru notices the minions are missing, all he does is suggest cutting their holidays. When’s he’s confronted with what is being done to them, he makes no effort to save them; he just runs.
Although Gru and his family do immediately deal with the problems confronting the minions, there’s no sense of outrage over what’s been done. (In fact, it’s heavily implied that Dr. Nefario was involved directly.) Rescuing the minions is treated as a side-effect of defeating the bad guy. It’s clear that when Nefario refers to his “family”, he isn’t talking about the minions. With their holidays and their role in the plot, it’s clear the minions are more than just generic henchmen (they have names!), but it seems like the film can’t quite decide just close the minions are to characters.
There’s advancement, a definite development and expansion of their role, but no real definition or logic. To be fair, there’s a lot a going on here. I respect that the film goes out of its way to give everybody some focus. Gru falls in love. Margo discovers the world of teenage boys. Agnes tries to imagine having a mother. Dr. Nefario has a crisis of conscience about the fact that he really got into the game for the whole “evil scientist” thing and well… that’s not really what Gru’s doing any more.
All this is nice, but feels a bit too cluttered. And it feels a little disengaged. The identity of the movie’s villain is signposted early on, and the movie never really offers any convincing red herrings. At the same time, the movie’s villain is teased as a potentially three-dimensional adversary for Gru – he’s an obvious foil for Gru as a family man – but the movie never follows through. It might have been interesting to see how other villains like Gru react to starting a family, or to take a look at what life after supervillain retirement might look like. Despicable Me 2 hints at these ideas, but then follows the path of least resistance.
It’s not bad. It’s actually quite good. It’s funny, it’s witty and it’s well-observed. It can be a great deal of fun once it gets going, and the animation is absolutely top-notch. At the same time, it lacks a bit of the spark and zest of the original, and there’s a sense that there’s a much stronger movie in here just waiting to get out.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | animation, arts, despicable me, Despicable Me 2, film, grant morrison, Gru, Heitor Pereira, Kristen Wiig, La Cucaracha, Lucy, Miranda Cosgrove, Movie, Nefario, non-review review, Pharrell Williams, review, Steve Carell