Spoiler Warning: If you haven’t seen the film, it is not recommended that you read this review.
Looking back, 2010 was a damn good year for American theatrical animation. Toy Story 3 ended Pixar’s most popular franchise on a high note (though we have had more shorts and specials since), was a stellar DreamWorks outing from the minds behind Lilo and Stitch, and DreamWorks’ other big film Megamind was a fun lark (let’s just forget about Shrek Forever After). And then there was the surprise hit of the summer, Despicable Me. Coming from the new Illumination Studios that was essentially a co-venture between America and France, it was a charming, funny and clever tale about a villain named Gru who ended up adopting three orphan girls. Perhaps it was a bit formulaic, but it earned a lot of goodwill for its stylized animation and surprisingly unique performances from the cast, especially Steve Carell’s bizarrely-accented Gru. Alas, I almost suspect that the creative success of that film was a fluke. Their next fully animated film (their second project was Hop, a live-action/animated combo about the Easter Bunny), an adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, was almost completely dreadful, a dull, mechanical slog that managed to spectacularly miss the point of the story. And now comes Despicable Me 2, which has its mild charms but is otherwise “just” a sequel.
The biggest disappointment is arguably that Gru’s not really a villain anymore. Part of the fun of the original film was that he tried to balance his schemes against the growing bond he had with the girls, and had little interest for anything beyond that. The sequel opens in a frankly bizarre place as he hosts a birthday party for his youngest daughter Agnes, and it’s revealed that he wants to be a legitimate businessman by making jams and jellies. I suppose I can see the story logic behind this (he doesn’t want to continue working in ways that might harm his family), but it’s just not any fun. Especially since he’s recruited by the previously unseen Anti-Villain League to help them catch a villain currently scheming to take over the world. This leads to another disappointing character: Lucy (Kristen Wiig), Gru’s new partner and love interest.
Now, I wasn’t opposed to the idea of Gru having a love interest, especially since Lucy starts out as such a fun, quirky character brought to life by Wiig’s scatterbrained energy. But it’s set up in a bizarre way at the birthday party because Agnes is sad she doesn’t have a mother. Now, this is a perfectly reasonable way for a little girl to feel, but it almost feels like the film is suggesting that a single father isn’t enough to raise a family. Additionally, Lucy and Gru’s romance feels way too rushed; there are perfunctory bonding moments, but I just don’t buy that they would risk everything for each other at the end of the movie. Her sliding into the damsel-in-distress role at the climax is also rather annoying.
Now, I said the film does have its pleasures, and it does. The voicework is still very good, with the highlight of the non-Lucy new characters being El Macho, who Benjamin Bratt invests with all the Mexican bravado he can muster. Macho is perhaps a total stereotype, but he livens up the film whenever he appears, and the way he behaves as a father could have served as an interesting contrast to Gru. Some fun cameos come from the likes of Ken Jeong as a red herring store owner, Steve Coogan as the man in charge of AVL, and Kristen Schaal as a disastrous date for Gru. The Minions are still funny, though they’re around in much larger doses this time around since they became the breakout characters of the first film, and have their own feature-length adventure coming down the pipeline. And when Gru does occasionally give in to his villain impulses (such as when he freeze’s Macho’s son Antonio for breaking his oldest daughter Margo’s heart), it’s a reminder of how funny he used to be. The animation is still very nice and cartoony, especially in the exaggerated luchador mannerisms of Macho.
The problem is that the movie just feels like an obligation. It doesn’t feel like a quantum leap forward like the Toy Story sequels were; it feels more like the frequently boring Disney direct-to-video sequels that they churned out in the 90s and 2000s. After this, I unfortunately can’t say that I’m looking forward all that much to the inevitable Despicable Me 3.