'Despicable Me 2': Fun family mayhem
By James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
"Despicable Me," released in 2010, came somewhat out of left field: It was a piece of children's animation that wasn't from one of the field's super-studios like Pixar or DreamWorks, had a look and feel that owed more to Charles Addams and Ian Fleming than other usual suspects, and had its lead voice actor, Steve Carell, hidden behind a strangulated Euro-Slovakian accent. Despite those facts -- or, more possibly, because of them -- it became the 10th-highest-grossing animated film of all time. Profit made a "Despicable Me" sequel inevitable; the talents involved have made that sequel terrific, with goofy gags as well as great characters.
The plot's a high-concept riff on Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief," as the now-reformed villain Gru (Carell) is out of the business, concentrating on raising the three young girls he originally took in as means to an end and ended up loving. All the resources and minions he used to use for evil are now being used to make fruit jellies, with less-than-fruitful results. Gru finds himself recruited by the Anti-Villain League, working from the logic that the best way to catch a bad guy is to use an ex-bad guy who can think like a baddie. Gru is teamed with AVL rookie Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), with the twosome embedded in a mall cupcake shop to find a stolen mutagen that turns living beings into indestructible purple engines of mayhem.
Gru's glad to be, as he says, "back in the game." His daughters Margo, Edith and Agnes (voiced by Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier and Elsie Fisher) are more intrigued by the sparks that may be flying between Gru and Wilde. There's also every reason to believe that mall restaurateur Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt) may also be long-believed-dead supervillain El Macho. (El Macho died by being launched into a volcano on a missile strapped to a shark covered in explosives, but Gru waves it away: "They never found a body ...")
The vocal work is all superlative. Carell's Gru still has the aggrieved tones of a homicidal fussbudget, while Wiig shamelessly hams up Wilde as required. (It's also easily overlooked with all the karate-chopping and floundering she does, but Wiig's Wilde is the most competent, empowered female lead in any film I've seen this summer, even while looking like an enthusiastic stork.) Bratt's vocal work as Eduardo switches from smooth-talking host to smoothly menacing baddie with giddy ease. The cast members are more than willing to do what co-directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud and co-writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (all back for this second installment) ask of them. When Gru fights a chicken, (and loses) you can hear his frustration and indignity.
"Despicable Me 2" also has plenty of good, old-fashioned cartoon mayhem -- clearly of the Looney Tunes school, from back when a Martian could disintegrate Daffy Duck into a bill atop a pile of ashes with a minimum of shocked parental concern. There are freeze rays and stun guns, falls and crashes, lavender mutants with snaggletoothed mouths and jelly-firing guns. Much of this is of course aimed at Gru's multitudinous yellow minions -- those capsule-shaped, rubbery and invulnerable physical comedy machines from the first film -- but it's still goofy stuff that kids love, and good on the makers of "Despicable Me 2" for understanding that a good physical gag isn't a sin in and of itself.
The animation in "Despicable Me 2" is fine, even if the design is occasionally a bit too floridly overdone and ugly. (Do kids need to see neck wattles? Or caricatures of plastic surgery?) The 3-D is fine-to-OK, with the garish colors and retro-rounded set design nicely accentuated by the effect. Unlike other animated films, "Despicable Me 2" gets that if you're going to have 3-D, the brighter the screen, the better the effect. But these minor distractions fade in the film's finer moments, like when Gru -- reformed villain, single parent, harried dad -- tucks in his youngest and craziest child and, with a kiss, says, "Good night, Agnes. Never get any older." Heartfelt and hilarious, smart and silly, action-packed but never violent, "Despicable Me 2" is that rare sequel that outshines its beginnings.
James Rocchi has written reviews and articles for print and online publications, including Total Film Magazine, the Toronto Star, IndieWire's The Playlist, Mother Jones, AMCtv.com and Cinematical.com. He's covered film festivals, including Sundance, Cannes, the Toronto International Film Festival, SXSW and Fantastic Fest. He's been an on-air reviewer for CBS-5 San Francisco and a reviewer and commentator for CNN, G4, TechTV and more. He lives in Los Angeles, which is both exactly and not at all like the movies suggest it is.