A somewhat unlikely animated megahit in 2010, the first Despicable Me took a great concept and watered it down just enough to make it family-friendly. The supervillain protagonist, Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), looked the part, with his Blofeld-like bald head, circular torso, and spidery legs, but the villainy itself was mostly abstract, almost poetic — Gru wanted to steal the moon, not rule the world or enslave millions or anything truly monstrous. The sequel doesn’t even try to replicate that earlier, defanged concept: Since Gru seemed to give up evil (or “evil”) at the end of the first film, when he became the adoring parent to three headstrong young foster girls, now he just makes jam and throws birthday parties, his dark, once-creepy lair outfitted with balloons and decorations. And when an organization called the Anti-Villain League recruits him to help catch a mysterious new criminal, Gru turns into a fully fledged good guy. There’s nothing despicable about him anymore, if there ever was. They should have just called the movie Me 2.
Actually, the action-movie/espionage high jinks are secondary to the new film’s chief concern, which has to do with Gru’s mostly nonexistent love life and his fondness for the perky, leggy, lipstick-taser-wielding AVL agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig). Unfortunately, Gru is terrified of women and incapable of asking her out. Meanwhile, a neighbor sets him up on dates with other, clearly undeserving females. The film spends a rather surprising amount of time on Gru’s romantic woes. Perhaps directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud just want to throw grown-up viewers a bone or two. More likely, they’ve realized that the young girls who embraced their first film in 2010 are now several years older. (The oldest of Gru’s adopted daughters even has a romantic infatuation of her own this time around.) Ironically, that latter demographic reality makes it hard not to feel a little discomfort at some of this stuff — especially one particularly bad date that ends with Gru drugging his date unconscious.
All that said, Despicable Me 2 does have plenty of what made the first film so entertaining — its wedding of James Bond–like gadgetry and visual invention with goofy slapstick, and the dizzying fun had with shrink rays, piranha guns, elaborate evil spaceships, and the like. Also back in full force are the Minions, Gru’s army of adorably barrel-shaped yellow henchmen, who have in intervening years starred in their own popular series of video shorts. (At one point, the Minions are transformed by the film’s villain into purple, fanged, vicious monsters, and they pile on top of each other to create little mountains, like the zombies in World War Z — a perfect example of how context is everything.) But the new film can’t quite match the sheer ingenuity of the original, so it has to make do with scale. The gags are often bigger and faster than those from the earlier film, though not always funnier.
Let’s spare a word, too, for the voice acting. Star-studded voice casts are so common nowadays that it’s rare for a vocal performance to truly stand out — think of Robin Williams’s Genie in Aladdin, or Patrick Warburton’s Kronk in The Emperor’s New Groove. But the half-jaded, half-bemused, slightly guttural, nondescript Eastern-European accent Carell gave Gru was a comic marvel in the first film, working overtime to lend even the most throwaway gag a unique energy all its own. It’s pretty much irresistible here, too — just one more reason why Me 2, even at its weakest, is still a charmer.