After a second-tier archvillain has been domesticated and redeemed by the inexorable cuteness of a trio of orphaned moppets, how does a sequel keep things interesting? Despicable Me 2 has some good next-step ideas.
Still adjusting to the vagaries of suburban single fatherhood (backyard birthday parties, etc.), the newly reformed Gru (Steve Carell) is nonplused to learn that his old partner in crime, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), is leaving him to pursue other opportunities. Isn’t that always the way with old friends when a single guy settles down?
Then there are the neighbors trying to set up Gru with their single lady friends. Well, moppets need a mother as well as a father — and it’s pretty clear that Gru’s little girls know it, even if Gru doesn’t. There’s a nice tribute to motherhood, though the movie never gets past the Hallmark sentiment to developing actual relationships.
Oh. And then there’s the AVL — that’s the Anti-Villain League — a high-tech intelligence organization that wants to recruit Gru to help thwart other archvillains, like a reformed computer hacker going into computer security and thwarting other hackers.
This is an inspired idea — the film’s best. “Dr. Evil without Austin Powers,” I called Gru in my review of Despicable Me. Turning Dr. Evil into Austin Powers (mutatis mutandis, for a family film) is the best possible way to keep the reformed character from losing his mojo. (Oh, how Mike Myers has influenced this discussion!)
Does it pay off? Just about.
Steve Carell is still amusing as brusque, testy Gru, no longer evil but still off-kilter enough to keep things entertaining. The yellow Minions, so popular in the original, are the clear breakout characters, and the movie overuses them shamelessly, to audience-pleasing effect. Like the penguins of Madagascar, the Minions are destined for their own film, as an end-credits audition sequence indicates.
Kristen Wiig, wasted in the original as the Miss Hannigan-ish head of the orphanage, is recast in a much better role as an overenthusiastic AVL agent named Lucy Wilde. She’s a good match for Gru, and while she gets the better of him in their first encounter, for once a family film avoids the tiresome cliché of the leading lady being more competent, smarter and better in every way than the leading man.
By the end, in fact, we’re in traditional damsel-in-distress rescue territory, which is really too far in the other direction. I would have liked to see Gru and Lucy used more effectively as a team (and having Lucy bail Gru out of a bad blind date by shooting the obnoxious woman with a tranquilizer gun isn’t exactly what I had in mind).
There are diminishing returns. The charming gee-whiz quality of the original, with dueling archvillains and high-concept, attention-grabbing crimes like stealing the Great Pyramid of Giza and even the moon itself, is lessened. After a pretty inspired opening involving the theft of an entire Arctic research laboratory, the new archvillain’s actual plot of world domination is a bit of a letdown, even when you find out how he plans to do it.
The antagonist himself, though flamboyant enough, doesn’t hold a candle to Vector in the original. Despite a bit of misdirection, it’s no surprise to say that Gru, undercover for the AVL at a local mall looking for a mystery archvillain, correctly identifies a Mexican restauranteur named Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt) as an old peer known as “El Macho,” thought to have perished in a stunt involving a rocket, a shark and a volcano.
With El Macho comes subplots in which Gru breaks into Eduardo’s restaurant looking for evidence, Gru’s oldest daughter Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) develops a crush on Eduardo’s emo-haired heartthrob son Antonio and everything comes to a head at a big Cinco de Mayo celebration.
A minority or ethnic cultural vibe in a family film is generally a welcome thing — good examples include Spy Kids, Lilo & Stitch, The Princess and the Frog and Rio — though somehow it feels a bit arbitrary or forced here. Certainly the filmmakers don’t use El Macho’s cultural milieu to reveal anything about Gru, as they did in the original with Vector.
With his youthful Silicon Valley hubris and next-generation gadgets, Vector was threatening to Gru — who was, at the end of the day, a middle-aged, old-school suburban small-business owner struggling to get enterprise funding — in a way that El Macho never is. With Vector, the conflict had stakes for Gru personally. Here, it’s obviously important for Gru to save the world and the people he cares about, but we never really care about El Macho or his scheme.
Most crucially, Gru’s anti-villain work never quite pays off for him. It makes sense that Gru, who struggled as an archvillain, would run into speed bumps and humiliations early in his relationship with the AVL. Then at some point Gru needs to get his groove back and rise to the occasion to take on El Macho, either with the AVL or on his own, with an audacious high-concept plan ideally involving large airborne vehicles and crazy gadgets.
I guess that’s what we get, although nothing here is as memorable as Gru’s various confrontations with Vector (break-in attempts at his headquarters, etc.). The resolution of the climactic crisis is particularly lame.
How could the filmmakers have done better? Here’s a thought: What if the AVL turned out to be bad guys, so Gru was actually on the wrong side? Hmm, I guess The Incredibles did it first. Still, steal from the best. Or what if Gru’s past came back to haunt him in some way? Perhaps his peers trying to lure him back to the dark side or someone with a grudge looking to settle it now that Gru is reformed.
A more subversive thought: The movie’s pretty clear that Lucy admired Gru’s villain work in the old days. What if this were to set Gru wondering if he’s lost something in becoming a good guy? What if Lucy were to hint that she might be more interested in pursuing crime with him than fighting it? What if she actually turned to crime and Gru had to stop her? You’d need a different love interest at that point, but it might be a livelier story.
Best of all, they could have gone the Spy Kids / Incredibles “family is the greatest adventure of all” route, forging Gru and Lucy into an adoptive father / surrogate mother superspy team, and perhaps even getting the girls in on the action. This is probably the film’s biggest missed opportunity, in my view.
Still, it’s all amiable enough: colorful, sweet and likable, without the abrasiveness, language or obnoxious pop-culture vibe of many cartoons today. There is some bathroom humor and some Looney Tunes-style bawdiness involving the Minions, but it’s all pretty mild. (The “fart gun” from the original makes a reappearance, and watch out: Universal is marketing actual fart-gun toys that release a “banana” smell.)
In the end, when little Agnes stands up to “make some toast” (i.e., make a toast), well, it’s a Hallmark moment, but I got a lump in my throat. Finally, while the proceedings end, almost inevitably, in a celebratory dance number from the 1970s, I want to personally extend my thanks to the filmmakers that the Minions never start rapping or b-boying.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Content Advisory: Mild slapstick cartoon action; some mild rude humor. Fine family viewing.