The first “Despicable Me” picture came and went three years ago under a radar dominated by the likes of “Toy Story 3,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Tangled,” and it was, some might say, an obscure selection in a menagerie of much more qualified crowd pleasers. Somehow, it still found modest success with audiences and critics, and that formula becomes an immediate invite to movie studios for follow-ups. The result is “Despicable Me 2,” a movie that can be described as more of the same, and an endeavor that will gratify its target audience on the basis of a safe retreading through material that so clearly worked once before with minimal risk. And some people are perfectly okay with that idea, I guess. I am not one of those individuals.
The dissonance between these movies and my own enthusiasm for feature animation is a puzzling predicament. It’s not as if there aren’t subtexts at work here that inspire, either. Consider the main character Gru, a reformed villain whose prior aspirations were ridiculous in scale – in one of the most well-known promo shots, his shadowy figure appears lit through a piercing light in a window pane, drawing obvious parallels to the famous Alfred Hitchcock profile. The classic thrust of soundtrack, furthermore, recalls the horn-heavy orchestra typically utilized by Henri Mancini, and no doubt pays homage to the famous “Pink Panther” theme. Both details no doubt exist for the sake of harkening older viewers back to their enriched film heritage. But where does it all lead? Alas, nowhere notable. Here lies a premise that is one-note in approach, and even less ambitious with plot twists and characterizations.
The main character is voiced by Steve Carell, in a manner that can only be described as a direct rip-off of Mike Meyer’s vocal style in the “Shrek” pictures (once you see it, you will know exactly what I mean). His Gru, previously a villainous tyrant with no desire of happiness, is now reformed by the hearts of three adopted orphans, and they collectively live a life of peace and innocent adventure. Unfortunately, a society that has widely anticipated his prior levels of villainy continues to encourage others, and at the opening of the picture an agent for the Anti-Villain League named Lucy (Kristen Wiig) emerges in hopes that he can assist in finding the whereabouts of a villain who has stolen an important serum that turns ordinary living organisms into ravenous monsters. Not so eager to allow new dealings with that old life to cause ripples in his tranquil life, Gru initially declines the offer. But as is always the case of characters in cartoons that struggle against their true nature, the idea of being a secret agent on a case that exposes him to former dangers is also a thrilling prospect. Once it becomes clear that the source of this grave theft may in fact be one of Gru’s own former nemesis, the decision is much easier to make.
The core implication in the first movie was that the lead’s overzealous professional goals also made him unhappy, and in need of some kind of personal life. The answer came in the form of three young girls who inspired personal reflection; here, in the follow-up, his happiness is caged by the prospect that he has limited romantic interests, and the children are in need of a mother figure. A lack of skill with ladies is exploited in a couple of memorable scenes in which he is set up with a neighbor’s girlfriend, and an embarrassing situation at a restaurant ends with his date being shot with a tranquilizing dart. However, it is more obvious to both the characters and the audience that Lucy, a quirky and spastic sort who feels lifted out of a Carol Burnett sketch, will eventually become the necessary love interest, and only after they are plucked in and out of one cat-and-mouse scenario after another. All of this leads to a reveal of a diabolical world domination scheme that… well, for the sake of adhering to the rules of sequels, is supposed to be more grandiose than any before. Unfortunately, I am at odds with the idea of taking over the world with an army of purple monsters being as interesting as, you know, stealing the moon.
The story is unfocused, and capped by a resolution that has notable holes in reason, but even that could be forgiven in a cartoon with an arsenal of laughs. Alas, “Despicable Me 2” gains amusement only in non-related intervals involving Gru’s minions, who are used to propel certain aspects of the core story arc but are not actually drawn out enough to be anything more than just narrative underpinnings (and back-up punch lines). The remaining characters simply seem to wander across the screen like exercises in CGI, and the villain’s top-secret scheme, revealed right before the climax, is so momentary and knee-jerk in concept that it results in the most unambitious conclusion I have seen in an animated film. Considering it involves a shark strapped to a rocket heralding towards an active volcano, this is no simple feat.
The wonders of computer generated animation were once in the hands of filmmakers who were driven by great ambitions in storytelling. Now, with CGI more readily available to most major Hollywood studios – and only at a fraction of the cost – the drive has stagnated, and the thrill of this technique is muted by the plethora of sub-standard childhood yarns that seem to be cranked out of on an assembly line. This movie, much like its predecessor, recalls that sentiment to explicit lengths; it is innocuous entertainment, to say the least, and homogenized to a standard that undermines what many of us feel was the entire purpose to animation. I suppose young children will be amused by the bright colors and detailed aesthetic of the computer-based images. But what will they learn from the experience, or even remember past the theater room exit? The great Walt Disney once said that movies “have tremendous influence in shaping young lives in the realm of entertainment towards the ideals and objectives of normal adulthood.” How disappointed he would be to endure a movie like “Despicable Me 2,” which exists out of a necessity to simply occupy them for 98 minutes without any principle of lasting consequence.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Comedy/Animated (US); 2013; Rated PG for rude humor and mild action; Running Time: 98 Minutes
Steve Carell: Gru
Kristen Wiig: Lucy
Benjamin Bratt: Eduardo
Miranda Cosgrove: Margo
Russell Brand: Dr. Nefario
Produced by Janet Healy and Christopher Meledandri; Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud; Written by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul