What it lacks in originality and memorability, Despicable Me 2 more than makes up for in excellent animation, hilarious physical comedy, great performances and a surprising amount of heart.
The original Despicable Me, from 2010, was good, disposable fun. It had a neat premise, some excellent character designs and accompanying animation, hilarious physical comedy and a good sense of fun. It also attempted to reach for a heart and deepness that it never quite earned and had a series of alright to very poor voice performances that failed to elevate its script into something more memorable. Nevertheless, despite those issues, the film went on to be the ninth highest grossing film of 2010 worldwide which consequently, despite the original giving us no reason whatsoever for there to be one (although, let’s be frank, when has that ever stopped anything), means that we now have a sequel.
Fortunately, Despicable Me 2 is one of the far better animated sequels to come along in recent memory. What it lacks in originality (and it lacks a lot in originality) it more than makes up for in most every other department, even going so far as to fix the two main issues of the original film, leading to a very fun, if still disposable, animated kids’ flick.
Despicable Me 2 picks up an unspecified amount of time after the first film with Gru (Carell) officially having given up a life of villainy to look after his adopted daughters, Margo (Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher), and attempt to launch his own line of jams and jellies. But when someone steals an experimental mutation gel, Gru is forcibly recruited into the Anti-Villain League, assigned a kooky partner, Agent Wilde (Wiig), and tasked with hunting down the person responsible. Said culprit is hiding out at the local mall running one of the stores which seems to set up a sort of “Whodunnit?” mystery, but when only two of the mall’s store managers are actually given screen-time and the one with the lesser screen-time starts screaming that he’s been framed when arrested around 2/3 of the way through, you can probably tell where this is going.
In addition to that; Wilde and Gru are paired up as love interests for each other, as if you didn’t see that coming due to the whole “buddy-cop” dynamic the film clearly sets up, Margo gets a love interest of her own in the shape of the purposefully one-dimensional and suave Antonio, Gru’s assistant Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand still being the most enjoyable he’s been in years) is tired of not being evil and Gru’s villainous Minions get more screen-time because they were the best part of the first film so why not, right? If all of that sounds like somebody furiously ticking off boxes on the “How To Plot The Sequel To An Unexpectedly Successful Kids’ Film That Left No Reason For There To Be A Sequel” checklist then… yeah, you’re probably right. In terms of raw components, the film is about as original and inventive as bottled water, but in spite of that, it still works for various reasons.
For one, the original’s ace in the hole, the excellent animation coupled with the hilarious physical comedy, is still here and still as excellent and hilarious as ever. The cleverness of both is able to lift what should be flat or annoying characters into something far better than they sound on paper. Take, for example, Antonio. On paper, he’s a plot device designed to give Margo something to do, even if it’s just for about five minutes, and his voice actor does absolutely nothing to dissuade this perception, sounding wooden and stiff instead of suave and cool. Instead, the animation and character design take those traits and ramp them up so far that it becomes a hilarious parody of such flat characters. The way his mouth pretty much always hangs agape whenever it’s not an insufferable smirk, the incredulous face he makes when blowing a tuft of his hair back into place, his forced smile during a confrontation with Gru late on in the movie. It’s these details that rescue what should be a super annoying and dull character (although his line when he’s attempting to be deep, “Someday, I want to play videogames for a living”, is great writing, I have to say).
In addition to rescuing certain characters, the animation and physical humour also go a long way to covering up the lack of particularly funny lines in the script. The physical humour is something that this sequel doubles down on and it’s a good job that the film is so damn good at it otherwise there’d be a serious problem in the jokes department. One short yet excellent sequence in the third act, a wordless demonstration of what the mutation gel does to those injected with it, escalates in such a manner that if you’re not laughing by the end of it then you probably just don’t like fun. Another, again almost wordless, comes earlier on and is a visual demonstration of El Macho and just precisely why he’s so macho. Again, and even better than the first example, it escalates in such a manner that it ends with probably the single most ridiculous and hilarious image that I’m going to see all year (and I’ve seen Fast & Furious 6) which left the entire screen I was in bursting into hysterics. The film knows how to perfectly time a pratfall, where on the screen it should take place and exactly how other characters should react that the film’s comedy gets by on that alone, again despite a surprising lack of killer lines.
When it comes to fixing the original’s flaws, though, Despicable Me 2 mostly aces it. Gru’s evolution from a selfish and curmudgeonly villain to a loving and caring father in the original was sudden and unearned, as if the film just flipped a switch on him at the halfway point because “Oh, crap! We’re running out of time and our lead character hasn’t actually gotten through his arc yet!” Consequently, the original’s attempt at a heartfelt ending didn’t land because the film didn’t feel like it had fully earned it. DM2 does a much better job at this, though, actually giving Gru and Agent Wilde time to bond and showing the two genuinely starting to fall for each other, instead of just flipping the “And Now They’re Both Hopelessly In Love With Each Other” switch at the halfway mark. It’s easier to get invested as a result, this time earning its heartwarming ending through its writing and characters instead of through the sheer bloody effort of Agnes, like the first one did.
As for the subpar (and that’s being generous) voice acting of the original, that’s been mostly fixed too. The closest this film gets to its equivalent of Jason Segel (the original’s weak link, by a long-ass way) are Ken Jeong and Steve Coogan who sound forced (in Jeong’s case), stiff (in Coogan’s case) and in full-on paycheque collecting mode (both). However, neither of the two actors’ characters get much screen time, so they’re in and out before their performances have a chance to suck the film of its madcap energy, and outside of those two cases things are much better. Carell has improved massively as Gru, this time, hitting almost every line given instead of the, roughly, 75% in the original. Benjamin Bratt, meanwhile, is clearly having a tonne of fun as Eduardo, hamming it up all the way as he goes. Whatever Al Pacino (who was playing this role until he quit suddenly last month) was going to bring to the role, it’s not in the slightest bit missed.
But the film’s VO MVP (excluding the still amazing Elsie Fisher and a small, almost film-stealing appearance from Kristen Schaal) is, by far, Kristen Wiig as Agent Wilde. She’s game for pretty much any line the script throws at her and she nails the delivery of every single one, turning in a manic yet sweet performance which stays true to and enhances her character at every step. Her energetic work fits the film like a nice glove and is able to take even the stupidest scene and make it work (like a certain very cliché scene on an aeroplane that you’ll know the second you see it).
By the time it hits the now obligatory Dance Party Ending (you saw this coming, it’s a 2013 animated kids’ film by someone not affiliated with Disney), I guarantee that you will have had some semblance of fun with Despicable Me 2. It’s a goofy, silly and very funny movie with some excellent animation, great VO performances and some genuine heart underneath the fart guns and Minions playing golf. Is it original? Not in the slightest. Are the heartfelt bits anywhere near the level of Wreck-It Ralph? Not at all. Are you likely to remember any of it in three months? Probably not. It’s high-end disposable fun that you might come out watching just a little bit happier but not much more. But you know what? Sometimes, that’s more than enough.
Maybe if they make a third one that improves on this as much as this improved on the original, we’ll have one of the best animated films of the year!