There are animated movies — the wistful works of Hayao Miyazaki, the dignified and stoic Adventures of Tintin, the mortally horrifying Polar Express — and then there are cartoons. Zany, kooky, rabble-rousing characters stumbling into the sorts of situations that no human being would ever face. With Pixar's sentimental soft spot and a general propensity for animated features to engage older audiences as well as younger ones, we don't often see the sort of Looney Tunes hijinks that once occupied every animated feature and short on the market. This is what makes Despicable Me 2 — or at least its early scenes — such a delight. Those of us who fawned over the off-the-wall shenanigans of Bugs, Daffy, and Elmer in our earlier days will beam with glee over high-speed chase sequences, minions scooting every which way, and even the simple element of how these oblong characters are drawn. At its core, Despicable Me 2 is a love letter to the wild, visually ravenous yore of animation.
And for many, this will be enough. Your eyes never tire of the aesthetic charms of the bright, colorful world that sprouts from the dens of DreamWorks. The funny-looking characters bounce along in a springboard universe, never sinking below giggle-worthy in their desperate command of your unblinking attention. Transforming the ceaseless banter of vaudeville greats into the visual spectrum, every movement in Despicable Me 2 becomes a gag. Nine out of 10 times, a successful one.
But that's as deep as the joy and charms go here, which is a shame and a surprise, considering the heartfelt original feature. While the nefarious Gru's (Steve Carell) first big screen outing had him changing his ways in light of a newfound affection for three orphan girls, the sequel finds the character, now wholly reformed, embarking upon the substantially less interesting adventure of getting a girlfriend. Not only to lay his childhood insecurities to waste, but also to appease his youngest daughter, Agnes (Elsie Kate Fisher), whose life "just isn't complete" without a mother.
And so, Gru teams up with secret agent and aspiring superhero Lucy (Kristen Wiig) in a mission to bring down the mysterious purveyor of an evil plot for world domination. After the inception of this plotline, things pretty much peter out, thematically. Gru fumbles with his feelings for Lucy, and she with hers for him, with a vile plot carrying out under their extensive noses all the while. The film grabs at some tender moments, but is undone by its own reputation: in no way could a simple undercooked romance story ever live up to the heart-melting triumph that was Despicable Me.
As such, the gags prevail as the biggest win of the sequel. Placing the minions center stage, the sequel seems to know what it's doing, banking on the universal appeal of the slapstick ensemble. Those who revel in nostalgia for the near-dead era of animated physical comedy will smile knowingly at Despicable Me 2's revival of the trade. But anyone looking for that sweet sentiment, that heartfelt substance, the admirable story of the original will have to settle for a lot of babbling green things. They're cute — you'd better believe they're cute — but that's about it.
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Non-traditional heroes have become a staple of animated films in recent years supplanting anthropomorphic rodents and zoo animals as the protagonists du jour. Pubescent Vikings crotchety old men lonely robots and giant green ogres may not be much of a draw in the live-action realm but in the animated world they’re freaking gold. You can add to those prestigious ranks Gru the lead character in Despicable Me a terrific 3D-animated flick directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud and based on a story by Sergio Pablos.
An enterprising arch-fiend with a yen for stealing prominent tourist landmarks like the Times Square jumbo-tron and the Statue of Liberty (the Vegas version) Gru (Steve Carell) thinks he’s at the top of his malevolent game but his contented suburban existence is upended when he receives news that a youthful rival named Vector (Jason Segel) has managed to steal an entire Egyptian pyramid — a feat that renders his own audacious heists pedestrian in comparison.
His delicate villain ego badly bruised Gru aspires to take back the spotlight by stealing the Moon but before he can pull it off Vector sabotages his efforts by swiping a device essential to Gru’s scheme which triggers a duel of ever-escalating firepower reminiscent of the old Spy vs. Spy cartoons featured in Mad Magazine (with weapons straight out of the Acme design lab). Continually stymied by his ubernerd nemesis Gru is about to give up when he uncovers a fatal weakness: Vector is absolutely mad for the cookies sold door-to-door by a trio of impossibly adorable orphan girls Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher). Eying the children as the key to infiltrating Vector’s lair and succeeding with his moon-stealing scheme Gru agrees to adopt them. Little does he know however that they've unleashed on him a particularly virulent strain of cuteness that is already making its way toward his heart.
As the voice of Gru Carell speaks with a husky Russian-sounding (his true ethnicity is never revealed) accent that drips with exasperation and disdain for the naive simpletons that populate his idyllic suburban neighborhood. At first the idea of casting the Office star in the role seems counter-intuitive: Why go to the effort and expense of hiring one of the most popular comedy actors working today as the lead in your $100+ million (estimated) film only to conceal him in a voice nearly unrecognizable to his millions of fans?
Shortly into Despicable Me the answer becomes clear: because Coffin and Renaud idealistic young fools that they are hired Carell for his talent and not for his star power. And it’s a good thing they did. The same incomparable pathos that turned incompetent corporate stooge Michael Scott into perhaps the best-loved sitcom character ever works its magic on Gru making the story of his transformation from brooding misanthrope to dedicated father as emotionally engaging as it is funny.
A simple story told exceptionally well: It’s the modus operandi for today’s successful animation studios and it’s expertly carried out in Despicable Me. The plot thins out at certain points and at times borders on predictable but its wit and warmth and vibrant animation (the film's colorful gothic aesthetic was inspired by artists Charles Addams and Edward Gorey) — rendered in actual 3D not the fake variety so popular these days with audience-raping studio profiteers — carry it through those brief creative lulls.