Ah, domesticity. Gru (Steve Carrell) used to be a evil villain, but now he’s starting a business selling homemade jam while raising three adopted daughters as a single father. He misses his old life of international intrigue while his youngest daughter (Agnes, voiced by Elsie Fisher) wishes there was a maternal presence around with whom she could talk about stuff. Since life in movies works out this way, the potential solution to both of their problems arrives in the form of Lucy Wilde (Kirsten Wiig), an Anti-Villain League agent assigned to recruit Gru to help track down a villain. The two go under cover together in a mall where…ah, who am I kidding? This movie’s plot is just an excuse to string together slapstick comedy sequences with the true stars of the film: the Minions!
Bit players who excel in limited doses in films often become the mascot of the franchise in the sequel. It’s part of a regrettable trend sometimes called sequelitis, a made-up word which according to Urban Dictionary entails, among other things, “Shoving the best parts of the original [film] back in your face until you almost hate it.” It happened, to some extent, with Frank the Pug in the Men in Black franchise. Now, it is happening with the minions in the Despicable Me franchise.
Of course, it was probably unavoidable that those scene-stealing, gibberish-talking, walking plush bananas called the minions would be shoved to the front of Despicable Me 2. Their propensity for falling down as well as also laughing at the mere utterance of the word “butt” gives them an oddly appealing mix of silent film-esque slapstick with Beavis & Butthead-level immaturity. Plus, their inability to speak in a recognizable language lends them a universal appeal, much as Rowan Atkinson’s mostly mute Mr. Bean character was immensely popular worldwide due to the presentation of broad comedy with no language barrier.
So, while the minions were but a small part of the first Despicable Me they overtake the sequel. In the original film, the minions had one showcase sequence where three of them posed as a family as they went to a big-box retail store to retrieve a new stuffed unicorn for Gru’s youngest daughter. In the sequel, the minions have sequences such as that one roughly ever 5 minutes. The plot could easily be outlined as “Exposition Sequence – Funny Sequence with Minions,” rinse and repeat until the film’s final act at which point the minions become central to the plot.
Unfortunately, the minions were usually best when used to play off of other human characters in the original whereas they are often isolated together in the sequel. Perhaps they figured that if Wall-E could pull of a speechless protagonist in an animated film so could they. However, the minion sequences mostly just resort to cheap 3D movie tricks of things being thrown directly at the camera (so many times it appears a minion is jumping straight at you). More frustrating, though is that more minions means less of everybody else, and the minions were not the only great part of the first Despicable Me.
Released in 2010, Despicable Me was a welcome surprise to an animated film landscape dominated by Pixar. It was a post-Shrek animated film meaning the central character was an anti-hero traditionally viewed as a villain, a trend which has continued in the time since the film with Megamind and Hotel Transylvania. It had a delightfully sinister element to its story of a villain who simply adopts 3 girls from a horrible orphanage as part of his overall scheme to defeat a rival villain. This lead to many moments of unexpectedly dark humor, such as Gru’s various fantasies as to how he might rid himself of the girls once they have become too much of a burden. However, this also established an obvious arc for the character which made his eventual acceptance of the girls into his life by the end all the more satisfying. Plus, his youngest daughter Agnes undoubtedly gets the line of the movie with her unforgettabe, almost maniacal description of a new stuffed unicorn as “It’s so fluffy!”:
With the sequel having seemingly been designed to simply figure out how best to better integrate and ultimately center everything around the minions, Gru and his daughters suffer creatively as a result. For starters, Gru and Lucy’s search into the identity of a villain who is living undercover as a storeowner in a mall is so half-assed in its execution the identity of the villain is never for one second in doubt, thus presenting rather little mystery. The budding romance between Gru and Lucy also presents little suspense, and the notion that Gru’s life as a single father is somehow incomplete without a mate is possibly irksome to the single parents of the world (not being a parent myself, I’ll plead the fifth on that one).
Kristin Wiig is reliably odd-but-funny in her vocal performance as Lucy, but she is a character who does seem to disappear for long stretches of time as the film progresses. Plus, an early introduction that one of the minions has fallen in love with Lucy initially appears to be a story arc with obviously comedic potential that turns out to be a one-off gag left regrettably unmentioned ever again.
As for the daughters, they do give Margo (the oldest one, voiced by Mirando Cosgrove) and Agnes (the youngest one) their own story arcs, with Margo flirting with boys for the first time and Agnes longing for a mom. Both are treated in the expected manner (over-protective father on one end, befuddled father unsure of what to say on the other). However, they are perhaps a bit too familiar, and as cute as Agnes is she doesn’t have a moment quite on par with her “It’s so fluffly!” classic in the first film.
It’s certainly possible that perhaps with its emphasis more upon slapstick humor and cutesy family drama that Despicable Me 2 is simply aiming a bit lower than its predecessor. The original was like any number of orphan tales married to an ingenious long-form version of MAD TV’s Spy vs. Spy. The sequel, however, barely retains any trace of the spy vs. spy lunacy of the original (until the end…if I’m being generous), and instead focuses its story on family dynamics and slapstick jokes for the minions. It is perfectly non-offensive, easily enjoyable for family viewing. Younger viewers will likely delight in it as much they did the original (I know that this is true of my 5-year-old nephew). The vocal performances are all top-notch, and the animation, while not quite as gorgeous as that of a Pixar film, is still rather impressive. The animation for Agnes’ facial expressions is particularly deserving of complement.
However, lacking the old dark humor and playfulness with genre conventions of the original it sacrifices ingenuity for a more rote form of storytelling. The result is a film which chugs along, amusing on occasion while never quite coming completely together. One mid-film sequence involving Gru on a blind date (who is voiced by Kristen Schall, also the voice of the beloved animated character Mabel on Disney’s Gravity Falls) turned to dark comedy so fast I was positively ecstastic to see the film finally doing something a little different. Alas, such joy was short-lived as the film quickly reverted back to its average status.
The minions have their own spin-off movie due out Christmas time of 2014. The fact that the minions would warrant their own movie makes complete sense considering how hard they were elbowing all of the other characters off the screen in Despicable Me 2. Now, with the spin-off they won’t have to pretend to even care about Gru and his family.
The first Despicable Me was the movie you could watch with your kid(s) and secretly like a little more than them, or maybe even watch and love even if you don’t have kids; Despicable Me 2 is the movie your kids will love and force you to watch over and over again.
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