4 / 5 stars
You wouldn’t think a contemporary mass-market animated movie would actually take it down a notch—a sequel, no less—but that’s what Despicable Me 2 does. And it’s great. Don’t get me wrong, the action is still lively and crazy, as it should be for the genre, but it’s not as breathlessly frenetic as what’s gone on in some recent, beloved animated titles. The overwhelming ADD stimuli of the final act of The Incredibles, the forced energy of the Madagascar series… it can all be visually shrill, if there’s such a thing. But with Despicable Me 2, directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin draw their broad audience’s focus to one element at a time. They may overfill the frame with plenty of playful detail, but they keep the action compact and digestible for all ages. And it’s a whole lot of fun, at every moment.
Is this break from warp speed a sign of maturity in pop animation? Nah. Despicable Me 2 is filled to the brim with silliness, right down to a 21 fart-gun salute. (For real.) If you’re five years old, watching Big Daddy Gru dress as a fairy princess is riotous. If you’re 45, the clear references to Alien, The Godfather, and even The Love Boat make for zippy gags. And no matter your age, you simply have to love automatic weapons that rat-a-tat-tat an arsenal of potent jellies.
Let’s back up. The story, from busy animation screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, is pretty simple. Gru, now a full-time good-guy dad to his three adorable girls, has an opportunity to get back into the action, this time to thwart the baddies. It’s an old story, but Daurio and Paul have no use for the predictable hand-wringing drama of “They pull me back in!” Gru (Steve Carell, a fantastic voice actor) can’t wait to mix it up again, so we cut right to the chase. He is assigned an undercover gig in the mall with a bubbly female partner (Kristen Wiig, easily matching Carell’s talents), looking for the villain who’s got a super dangerous chemical that can turn any mammal (or, ahem, minion) into a bulge-eyed, growling monster with purple fur and an hilariously indestructible manner.
The jokes pile up but, as with the action, Despicable Me 2 doesn’t overdo it. When we’re with Gru and the girls, it feels like substance not filler. When Gru is kidnapped in a James Bond-like automobile to meet his new boss, we get to enjoy each hi-tech goodie as it emerges—Renaud and Coffin know this is far more satisfying than revealing three or four gadgets at a time in a rush to fill the screen. This is good.
And Despicable Me 2 is consistently creative and lovingly made. When you’re hunting down a bad guy who possesses a zombie serum, where else would you find him but at the mall? (A reference to both versions of Dawn of the Dead). There’s daddyhood and dating—both far more frightening than furry purple monsters. And, when in doubt, the movie brings out the minions, the infectiously funny little yellow guys who conveniently act as the film’s asides to the audience, a Beavis and Butthead commentary for the grade school set. Whether there are two or a couple thousand minions on screen, their execution is impeccable. They’re part innocent loyalists, part drunk rabble-rousers, rambling on in their eclectic mix of Spanish, French and Japanese (I think).
It all moves briskly and happily, pleasing Despicable newcomers and multiple DVD watchers alike. Parents will appreciate the film’s embraceable entertainment value, but will also like that their kids can follow along without strain. Perhaps animated films with American DNA (DM2 has French roots) are more likely to pile up the animated power, like a massive plate of food at a Vegas buffet. Maybe, just a tiny bit less is a whole lot better.