I guess I haven’t really been to see many light-hearted movies this year. I have a soft spot in my heart for Despicable Me, the Steve Carell vehicle that was, in comparison to other CGI films of the same period (I’m looking at you, Cars 2) a little bit under the radar. It wasn’t anything too spectacular, but it was a charming story with plenty of funny and heart-warming moments.
But when I saw the trailers for the inevitable sequel, I was rolling my eyes before the title came up. Everything about it seemed to scream “cash-in” to me, and initially I wasn’t even going to bother seeing it. But, dragged along I was.
Gru (Steve Carrell), now retired from the supervillain game following the events of the first movie, has devoted himself to going clean and being a good father to his three adopted daughters, worrying more about eldest Margo’s (Miranda Cosgrove) sudden interest in boys than the likes of stealing the moon with his minions and Dr Nefario (Russell Brand). But when a shadowy figure begins doing all manner of suspicious and nasty things with secret formulas, Gru gets called upon by the Anti Villain League to help them investigate, along with beautiful agent Lucy (Kristen Wiig), for whom Gru soon falls head over heels.
I was actually very, very surprised by Despicable Me 2, in so far as I actually enjoyed it rather thoroughly. I expected a pretty lame, cheap attempt at mimicking what made the first one so good in order to draw in the same crowd, but #2 actually manages to infuse some new stuff into the set-up, going in a different direction with Gru and actually showing that most shocking of all things: character dev elopement over two movies. It’s short but Directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin have managed to actually make something that was well worth the entry fee.
I’ve said it already but Despicable Me 2 actually has heart, depth, whatever you want to call it. Whatever it is, it’s the kind of emotional resonance with an audience that so many CGI sequels completely lack. This story, where Gru has to get over a very relatable problem – contact with the opposite sex – while dealing with another completely relatable problem – his daughter becoming interested in the opposite sex – is really good, never letting the “main” plot, involving the investigation of a long thought dead Luchador supervillain (Benjamin Bratt) take over for long enough to seriously detract from those other two sub-plots, and in fact all three are skilfully woven together at clever points.
This is a story featuring a more matured, likable main character, who wants to abandon plans for world domination over making jams and jellies (with mixed success). Despicable Me 2 really hooks you in early with scenes of Gru being a father, and a good one at that, while trying desperately to avoid the common entanglement of fictional single dads: being set-up by well meaning neighbours.
But, like I said, that doesn’t detract from the actual plot, which is a fairly enjoyable spy-filled romp. Lucy is a really good character to introduce, providing on outlet for some of Gru’s problems, a hook into the past plot regarding the three girls absent parents, while also providing plenty of laughs for the main story. She’s the main cipher for the spy stuff, straight out of an OTT reading of James Bond, with underwater car, erupting volcano backdrops and gadgets galore. I wouldn’t call it a satire of course, it doesn’t go that far, but the switch from a superhero/villain theme to one of international espionage and danger is rather effective and endearing.
And it also forms part of another reason that I really liked Despicable Me 2 (and the original): the dark side of things. It is almost a cliché to say after it has been applied to so many things over the last while but these kind of films really resonate with me when they threw in all kinds of humour that is expressly made for the adult population who are taking their kids to see the film. And by that, I mean really black humour, sometimes of a violent bent, that goes beyond slapstick. You have the horror-stuff with the mutated minions which really isn’t that far off monster movie territory. There is the strangely detached introductory sequence that seems altogether too serious for the surroundings of the film at large, but still manages to work in some physical comedy. There is the violent air assault on the bad guys secret base at the conclusion, not to mention the pain and suffering Gru undergoes while trying to break into the place earlier on. And, my favourite part, a sequence of a young Gru in a playground, working up the courage to ask a girl out and getting destroyed for his trouble, the kind of thing that should be in a more psychologically toned film, but works as humour here because of how it stands out amid some of the more whacky stuff.
The other parts of the humour stuff also work. Yes, there are a few fart jokes that made me roll my eyes, but I’m speaking more of everything with the minions. There kind of whacky, random hijinks are a great way to break from the black humour of much of the rest of the experience, and while they may be getting a bit overly-distracting by the conclusion, you still appreciate a bit of traditional fun and frolics in a movie of this genre. Obviously they’re trying to sneak in some promotion for an expected minions spin-off, and I’m fine with that, since I felt that the minion stuff served as fitting little scene and act breaks without becoming a nuisance. Plus, they were just funny, the kind of Eurotrash language and crazy adventures they get up to the perfect accompaniment to the rest of the movie.
It isn’t all good of course. The Nefario character is really oddly presented, with a late in the game swerve back to the good guys that makes no sense. I would have liked to have seen more time given to El Macho’s son as this tween lothario character, since I enjoyed that sub-plot with Margo. In fact, I think this movie could actually have added on 15 to 20 minutes in order to give more breathing room to some of the stuff, since I got the feeling that they were holding back on many things out of time constraints.
But hey, it’s nearly as much as I can ask for in such a movie. An engaging plot with good characters, a satisfying and uplifting ending, and the possibility remaining for them to go again someday. Admittedly, that ending is super-cheesy and very much by-the-book, but I still enjoyed. Sometimes, it’s good for movie to offer that kind of escapism, where stories have endings that are unambiguously happy.
Steve Carrell is back as Gru, putting on this vaguely eastern European accent for reasons that remain a little mystifying. It makes the character stand out in an audio way I suppose, but I think it really does limit the quality of the VA that Carell, the kind of comic actor who should really thrive under such conditions, can provide. Gru’s voice is just fine, but pretty bland – changes in emotion can really only be done by changing the volume. Gru is still a great character and Carell does his very best with the material, but it certainly not one of his most accomplished roles.
Much better is Kristen Wiig as Lucy, who brings a manic, ditzy but very adorable energy to the role, which perfectly complements the dark seriousness of Gru or the cartoonish quality of the minions. From her initial almost fangirl-ish reaction to Gru to her freak-out in the aeroplane, I think it is fair to say that Wiig has committed to the part, and is able to express a range of feeling far more than that expressed by Gru or other characters. I suppose, in that sense, she is the most emotionally expressive of all the characters which makes her very important in a production like this. Wiig does a great job, and I think she probably should come back to the world of VA in the future (she also played a different role in the first one, I think).
Benjamin Bratt is the villain, El Macho. He’s basically just playing to type here, the same sort of Hispanic charmer that he basically does on his guest appearances on Modern Family with a bit more muscle attached. The El Macho character is an interesting one to go with as a villain and Bratt does fine, especially since he apparently was brought in very late on when Al Pacino walked due to “creative differences”.
Miranda Cosgrave, who, if I can be cliché for a moment, I pegged as “one to watch” way back with School of Rock, gets the most to do of any Gru’s three adopted daughters. Margo, a tween role that Cosgrave should be well used to, is an adorable enough character, a girl beginning a very awkward phase in her life, trying to act like everything is fine and struggling to adapt to a new world where boys are suddenly more than they were before. Cosgrave does a good job at projecting that false confidence and later fragility. Little Elsie Fisher, as the youngest girl Agnes, also does a great job, considering her age, of portraying a little girl desperate to have a maternal presence in her life. The odd one out is Dana Gaier as Edith, who barely gets any lines.
The rest are all fairly minor. Russell Brand is back as Dr Nefario, but, like Carell, he’s putting on such a changed accent that it’s hard to really credit it him with sterling VA work beyond the change. Brand was always a weird choice for that role, since it’s impossible for him to bring any of his usual trademark comedy and energy to the part. Steve Coggan is the “M” character who is little more than an English stereotype. Ken Jeong, who just seems to pop up all over the place since Community started, has a brief, but pretty funny role as wig salesmen. Moises Arias has a very brief, but really awesome role as El Macho’s lothario son Antonio.
Lastly, directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud team up to voice the minions., who are a big draw for the younger crowd. The minions are, indeed, pretty funny in that special kind of way and their voice work is pretty unique – this weird mix of French and Italian almost, that becomes especially apparent at the finale sing-a-long. The minions are popular enough that they have been able to garner their own movie, and I suppose the VA is a big part of that.
It’s a visually impressive production. It’s wonderfully colourful, with lots of varied locations and pretty things to gawk at, and seamless enough that I can find no major faults with the way that things were presented. The background detail in places like the mall where Gru goes undercover, or El Macho’s mansion is fantastic, and really indicative of the effort that the animators put into the production, the kind of thing that I went into the theatre thinking would be lacking. Admittedly, sometimes there is an over-emphasis on some visual effects, like with the underwater car or other spy-related things, where the sequences go on just a little too long. Those cars (and, in fact, anything to do with vehicles at all) look cool, but there is a certain element of pride in the way that the camera very slowly pans over them.
The minions, being one of the keystones, get lots of attention, and have the CGI flexibility here to do all manner of random stuff, including various costume changes and WB-style physical humour. The evil minions are a well-designed inversion of the original, that actually skim the border of genuinely disturbing.
The character models are as good as they were in the last one, and the additions also match up. Yes, Lucy is a stick insect, especially compared to Gru, who has this hunchback thing going on, but I’m willing to forgive such unreality given the surrounds. Despicable Me 2 does fall back into the typical tricks used to evoke feelings of attachment and relatablity – big eyes on sympathetic characters for example – but that is all par for the course for this genre.
The script does its job. It’s a nice blend of different comical styles, wrapping all of those around a satisfying emotional centre. Despicable Me 2 is one of those really rare productions (even rarer in a sequel) that is mixing in a whole load of things in its script make-up but is actually making them all work in concert. No one is written poorly, though a few might be underwritten. Gru manages to be both protective, determined, loving and scared; Lucy is enthusiastic, excited, needy and funny; Margo is faux-confident and then genuinely hurt. It’s a script that really accentuates the characters and makes them relatable, the really critical characters anyway, and finds a realistic father/daughter, lonely man/lonely woman sub-plot formula to throw in the mixer with the supervillains/spy stuff.
And the dark stuff. Oh man, the dark stuff. Aside from the physical violence, you have Gru’s excruciating love confession when he was a child, Lucy attacking one of Gru’s blind dates with a knock-out dart (which has my favourite line in the whole thing as part of it) and an air assault straight out of Apocalypse Now as the finale.
And it all works. I’m going on about the blending here, but I was seriously impressed at the pacing and mix in Despicable Me 2, and the script work is a really key part of that. This is CGI comedy movie stuff at its nearly perfectly balanced best and that is high praise.
It also has a nice soundtrack, keeping over things like Pharrell Williams’s rather captivating main theme and his more exuberant “Fun, Fun, Fun”. The amount of jazz-based stuff is also rather noticeable, helping to add to the spy-movie surrounds, with occasional breaks for music of a more Hispanic/Mexican origin whenever El Macho or his son are on screen. While the actual score doesn’t quite stand out as much as you might hope it will, the soundtrack makes up for it with some really good choices, not least the minions wedding songs at the conclusion, which serves as a nice coda to the entire affair.
Themes then. Often movies of the CGI genre like that which Despicable Me 2 occupies arepretty light on substance, content to present as much cookie-cutter plot and shallow characterisation as is required to get a working movie out. But Despicable Me 2 confounded those expectations, thankfully.
Following on from the first movies general themes of accepting responsibility and changing your life, in the form of adopting needy kids, Despicable Me 2 evolves its main theme into that of Fatherhood. Gru is shown as an almost archetypical single dad. You know the type, from various fiction sources: usually has lost his wife/partner tragically, but remains a devoted, committed, loving father (nearly always to girls) who has no time for romance elsewhere which is where the actual drama comes from. Despicable Me 2 has that, and Gru’s fathering is shown in a very idyllic, almost too perfect way – at no point does he even have an argument with his girls, and his deficiencies as a father are mostly shown up in “cutesy” ways, like how he struggles to adapt to a world where Margo is interested in boys.
But despite all that, I still liked the way that Despicable Me 2 approached fatherhood, or at least single fatherhood. Gru’s mission to adapt his whole life to serve the needs of his dependents, from altering his world domination plans into a jam-making operation, or getting over his chronic fear of romantic relationships so that he can get a maternal influence for his family, that’s all good stuff to portray. Single Dads do have trouble with romance after all, it’s not like Hollywood is making that up, though it takes plenty of advantage from the sentimentality of the whole idea.
Gru’s positive fatherhood approach, which involves actually listening to his daughters fears and problems, trying to rectify them, and just doing everything he can to build a loving home, is juxtaposed with El Macho and his son. Their relationship onscreen is practically non-existent, with El Macho seemingly uncaring of his sons habit of breaking young hearts.
The fatherhood thing ties into an attached theme of family that Despicable Me 2 tries to add on in the finale, but in truth that aspect of the film is one of its worst parts, sort of just stuck on with some rather unstirring hokum from the Dr Nefario character.
Then there is a theme of, for lack of a better term “Getting back in the game”, which is connected to the previous as well. It’s a sequel, so Gru needs a newer focus than just his daughters, and finds it in this film-wide quest to get over pre-existing insecurities when it comes to the opposite sex, and just take the plunge. The scene where Gru practises asking Lucy out is very endearing because so many guys, myself included, have been there before: the utter terror of exposing yourself emotionally to someone you just aren’t sure is going to reciprocate in kind. I think Despicable Me 2 does a great job of showing that idea on screen, and to a lesser extent with Lucy as well, though her fateful moment, on the airplane, is a much more extreme.
Gru gets inspiration from his new-found feelings for Lucy, and the genuinely tear-inducing pleas of his youngest, Edith, who has a yearning for a mother she isn’t capable of really putting into words. Compare to El Macho, similarly a single father it would seem, who lacks any kind of romantic relationship, and does not seem to see his solitary nature as a problem for himself, or for his son.
Lastly, as with any kind of superhero story, you can see a general theme of “Good vs Evil”. This a movie about Gru making the switch from villain to hero, getting back into the battle on the side of the good guys, and doing so without reservations. His story is an example of one where redemption is not only possible, but easily attainable as long as you put the effort in. On the other hand is El Macho, a man who goes from being a villain, to simply being a worse one when here-emerges from self-induced absence from the supervillain scene. His story is one of an inherently dark nature shining through, regardless of the circumstances: he will always be a worse human being than Gru, appearances notwithstanding.
In conclusion, Despicable Me 2 confounded most of my expectations, easily becoming the best (non-Shakespearian) comedy I have seen all year. It’s heart-warming, it’s got lots of different kinds of humour that nearly all work, decent performances and is a truly excellent little bit of escapism in a time when you might feel overwhelmed by the more serious season of summer blockbusters. Universal and Illumination have really have knocked this one out of the park, to the extent that I would gladly put my faith in them producing a trilogy of movies for this franchise that are all equally superb. Fully recommended.
(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures)