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Guest Movie Review: Despicable Me 2

By (July 9, 2013) No Comment

bannerWhen Illumination Entertainment crashed onto the scene in 2010, the animation genre was having a pretty great year. As the heavy-hitters, both Pixar and DreamWorks were releasing arguably their best efforts to date (Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon, respectively), and the indie and foreign markets were abuzz about the Oscar-nominated The Illusionist and fan favorite The Secret of Kells. In the midst of all this, Illumination Entertainment scored an unexpected hit: the family-friendly and 3D-animated Despicable Me. Taking cues from the likes of James Bond and Mission: Impossible – and recognizing that villains are often more interesting than heroes, the movie focused on super-villain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), whose ambition to become the world’s most famous bad guy ironically introduces him to his soon-to-be-adopted three daughters and turns him away from a life of crime. It also introduced the Minions to the world; Gru’s band of yellow, fun-loving and completely unintelligible creatures has since become both cherished mascots and a marketer’s dream. Though Illumination did not garner a ton of awards for its first-rate debut, it was still a shot of fresh air and imagination, a shot across the bow of an industry which to that point possessed only two major players.

1Definitely not a good first impression

Despicable Me 2 is a fine follow-up, complete with almost everything that made the original so much fun. It takes place not long after the ending of the first movie, with Gru having turned over a new leaf parenting the trio of responsible Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), tomboy and ninja-in-training Edith (Dana Gaier) and unicorn-obsessed Agnes (Elsie Fisher). He’s converted his evil lab into a factory to run his new business making jellies and jams. And his single father status has him fighting off the advances of the ladies in the area. He has renounced his villain status in order to be the best father he can be. However, his old life still calls to him, so when the Anti-Villain league recruits him for help identifying and capturing an elusive bad guy, Gru jumps at the chance to be on the other side. But while the mission may have the detrimental effect of putting his new family in danger, it also introduces him to rookie spy Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), a tough cookie who might just be catching the eye of the former greatest villain on Earth.

2They can certainly amuse themselves

The plot is hardly noteworthy, even by sequel standards. Positioned quite obviously as a kids-first movie, there is very little here that could be construed as complex storytelling. However, it’s from the same screenwriting team as the original (Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, who also worked on last year’s The Lorax), and they easily manage to balance what plot there actually is with plenty of humor and heart. The humor will mostly appeal to young children, but directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud (also returning from the original) manage to get the adults to laugh as well. The Minions, essentially the designated scene-stealers, have (almost) no purpose beyond creating humor, and much like Scrat the saber-toothed squirrel in Ice Age or the Penguins in Madagascar, their best moments are in the interludes between scenes to help move the film along. But they are so effectively used humor-wise that it’s easy to see a grown man chortling alongside his 5-year old son at the Minions’ on-screen shenanigans (also easy to see why 2014 will see its own Minions spin-off). The directors know that it’s not necessarily a deep story or superb animation (which the movie also possesses) that keeps people in the seats, but humor. And while there are a few dull spots, for the most part they will leave you rolling in the aisles.

3This is what you get by not flying first class

That’s thanks to a returning cast of oddballs and a couple of new additions that make the sequel to Despicable Me fresh and exciting. Carell absolutely disappears under the CGI skin of Gru; between this complete transformation and his Alpha Male starring role in the indie The Way, Way Back, 2013 looks to be a great year for Carell (provided we all agree to forget The Incredible Burt Wonderstone). Other great performances come from the returning Russell Brand (another complete change of pace) as Gru’s elderly assistant Dr. Nefario, Cosgrove, Gaier and Fisher as Gru’s three adopted daughters, and newcomer Steve Coogan as the AVL’s uppity director, Silas Ramsbottom. Wiig also returns to the cast (albeit in a different role from the original), and her performance as the rookie spy/love interest is both exceedingly balanced and well-voiced (no doubt her dialogue will leave young girls – and more than a few adult ladies – reciting the cry “Lipstick Taser!” on public streets). Finally, Benjamin Bratt provides the voice to DM2’s villain, El Macho, a role that just two months ago had belonged to Al Pacino before he left the film at the last minute due to creative differences. It would have been interesting to hear Pacino’s work, but Bratt infuses humanity into his own take on the role, and the result is not dissimilar to Gru’s appearance in the first Despicable Me.

4She REALLY likes unicorns

And that turns out to be Despicable Me 2’s biggest flaw: there’s nothing to root for. El Macho needs to be stopped, sure, but despite that inescapable fact he never becomes a serious threat, especially when his army of evil Minions proves to not be all that scary.  In an effort to approach kids of all ages, Coffin and Renaud don’t include anything that might actually frighten anybody, and that’s a tough disadvantage for any super-villain to overcome. And Gru is far less interesting as a character the second time around; his dialogue is zippy and he’s still the hero, but without his evil plots is just too… NORMAL. Relieved of the character development that filled the original, Gru’s goal becomes less saving the world or protecting his girls and more getting the girl, which certainly feels like an anti-climax. Worse, the story actively tempts Gru with returning to the dark side, and while it’s commendable when he doesn’t do so, his inability to even consider the offer undermines the entire concept. On one hand, Gru’s transformation into Father of the Year as developed from Despicable Me is laudable as character growth. On the other hand, why would I keep watching a Gru that doesn’t have the capability of growing AGAIN?

5The neighborhood lawn wars get a little out of hand

That aside, Despicable Me 2 is definitely a fun family film, if not quite as memorable or groundbreaking as its predecessor. It’s another positive step in the journey of Illumination Entertainment, in its bid to reach the same lofty heights of its veteran competition. It’s still a young company, but they’ve already shown the potential for greatness in their work. Their latest effort is not a perfect film, but thanks to the Minions and a stellar cast, it’s still great enough to justify taking your kids over the weekend if you’ve already seen Monsters University. Because while Illumination has certainly come a long way, it’s still no Pixar.


John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast living in Boston. For the rest of his film reviews, check out Hello, Mr. Anderson (http://latestissue.blogspot.com)

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