"Despicable Me 2" Short On Imagination

2010’s “Despicable Me” was a genuinely inspired piece of animation that seemingly came out of nowhere, winning over kids, parents, and critics alike. Interminably sweet, funny, likable, and profitable, it made a parade of sequels inevitable. That procession is now here, beginning with “Despicable Me 2” and continuing with next year’s “Minions,” and it’s unlikely that the franchise will end there. Regrettably, but unsurprisingly, this second chapter suffers from textbook sequel-itis, leaving a world of potential unrealized and the creative future of the series in doubt.

“Despicable Me 2” abandons the accessibility of its predecessor, instead aiming squarely at the under-10 demographic. It’s much sillier, less pensive, and far more concerned with merchandising than the original was, giving off a definite too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen vibe. Many will embrace the film’s overt wackiness, especially youngsters, but it comes at the cost of story and unpredictability. Where the original was fresh, part 2 is stale, repeatedly traversing the path of least resistance.

The narrative hook is promising enough. Gru (Steve Carell), newly minted ex-supervillain and loving father, is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to track down a new criminal mastermind, suggesting a 007-style spy yarn. But instead of expanding the series’ universe, Gru is bizarrely pitted against several suspicious shop owners, Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt) and Floyd (Ken Jeong), in a local mall. The resulting story is curiously small in scale, ultimately failing to mine any new creative territory.

Kristen Wiig returns to voice a different character, Lucy, Gru’s new Anti-Villain League partner and possible love interest, while Gru’s daughters are all back – Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and the ever-adorable Agnes (Elsie Fisher). Gru’s relationship with his daughters inevitably but disappointingly fades to the background, while his rapport with Lucy is mostly unconvincing. It’s hard to pinpoint a lack of chemistry between voice actors, but Carell and Wiig don’t have much, rendering the love story dead on arrival.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Minions once again steal the show, especially with the lack of competition. Their antics are as welcome as ever, but with their brand of slapstick turned up to eleven, it occasionally begins to wear. And instead of being incorporated into the story, their scenes are largely tangential. Still, they’re the stars of the show and their musical finale, set to a 90s R&B classic, is a highlight.

It’s hard to tell if directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud faced interference on the part of the studio, but the film lacks any discernible spark beyond frenzied goofiness – a staple of the genre. The heartfelt original resonated because it was different, whereas “Despicable Me 2” does little more than show up. Kids should be satisfied and most adults will laugh enough to mask their indifference to the story, but there’s a deep void at the center of the film. It’s not even the blatant commercialism that’s distressing, as the first film was a merchandising juggernaut. It’s the lack of imagination from a very capable creative team that’s so disquieting. I can only hope that next year’s “Minions” corrects course.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: July 3, 2013
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin
Screenwriter: Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio
Starring: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Russell Brand, Steve Coogan, Ken Jeong, Benjamin Bratt
MPAA Rating: PG (for rude humor and mild action)