The original “Despicable Me” is still probably the best overall film that Illumination Entertainment has produced, but they’re a young company. I think they tried valiantly with “The Lorax,” but they had to add so much busywork to the lean and lovely Dr. Seuss story that it just felt padded. Their live-action/animated hybrid “Hop” is a little too willfully cute for my tastes, but it has more in common with the “Despicable” films, and the ways they’re similar sort of define how I think about the company.
Pixar has the best story department in animation, even today, but what Illumination brings to the table is a non-stop joke machine sensibility, and that’s what makes their films enjoyable. Even if they don’t quite land some thematic point or connect the dots on an emotional arc, the jokes just keep coming, one after another, and way more of them work than don’t. “Despicable Me 2” is a less emotionally resonant experience than the first film, but it is positively packed with laughs. There is a sweetness to the movie that works well enough to ground it in something identifiably human, and to be honest, I don’t really need “Despicable Me 2” to be as emotionally devastating an experience as something like “The Spectacular Now.” The laughs seem way more important to me, and I can’t fault the film in that department.
The same creative team is in place here as in the original. Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud are co-directing again, and the script was by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul. The first film dealt with the way three little girls (voiced by Miranda Cosgrove, Elsie Kate Fisher, and Dana Gaier) managed to tame a low-rent supervillain named Gru (Steve Carrell), and at the start of this film, he’s throwing a birthday party for one of the girls, and it is apparent that he has been totally domesticated. Because he spends time around the parents of all the friends of the girls, he has become a bit of a project for some of the moms, and they seem determined to find someone to set him up with, a prospect that obviously horrifies Gru.
Because he is no longer dedicated to evil, he’s had to repurpose both Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) and the Minions, the little yellow weirdos who have become the breakout stars of the series. He’s got them hard at work on a line of jams and jellies, and they seem to be terrible at it. The Minions don’t seem remotely phased to be out of the evil-doing business, but Nefario misses it, and he leaves for more evil pastures. Gru, in the meantime, is actually recruited by the organization that used to watch his every move. They want his help in figuring out who has stolen a special secret formula of some kind, and they assign an agent named Lucy (Kristen Wiig) to help him track down the culprit while working undercover at a local mall.
I don’t think the film has a very strong or compelling through-line, and the mystery they are assigned to solve is thumpingly obvious from the first time the bad guy appears onscreen. I’ll give you a hint… if he’s the only other character they bother to develop in any way (even if he is an ethnic stereotype so broad you can’t see the edges anymore), then he’s probably the bad guy. What does work is the super-sweet chemistry between Wiig and Carrell. As a story about the three little girls realizing they need one more piece before their family is complete, it works well enough. As a story about super-spies and super-villains, it’s even less engaged than the first film.
I’ve spoken to a few people since the film screened who have been upset by what they see as racism in the film, and I’m not going to tell them they’re wrong for having that reaction. I think the character that has them upset is just a broad comedy character that leans on silly stereotypes, but it’s obvious that it does push a button with some audiences. Be aware of that, especially if you’re a parent who is extra-sensitive to that sort of thing.
Otherwise, the film is modestly entertaining, and there are some big laughs here, particularly involving the Minions. It seems perfectly fitting that Universal and Illumination are planning a Minions-only movie, because they seem to be the thing the creative team is most excited by as well. If Illumination ever wants to make a truly great movie, they should embrace their identity as the funniest of the major animation houses today and make a no-apologies end-to-end comedy. I have a feeling it would kill.
“Despicable Me 2” opens in theaters today.