New animation house Illumination Entertainment’s 2010 debut was one of the bigger surprises of its summer. Made for a relatively thrifty $69 million (CG-animated features from better known studios like Pixar and Dreamworks cost at least twice that figure), Despicable Me boasted top-notch animation, an unexpectedly touching story, a very marketable collection of characters prime for expansion, and – perhaps most importantly – a staggering half-billion dollar box office haul. So, this (long, holiday) weekend’s release of Despicable Me 2 should be anything but surprising.
The sequel catches up with recovering super-villain Gru (Steve Carrell) who has given up his quest for world domination to father the three adorable daughters he adopted in the first movie: Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Elsie Fisher). His former underground laboratory has been transformed into a factory where his army of little yellow Minions and resident mad-scientist, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), produce Gru’s boutique line of jellies and jams. His quiet new domestic lifestyle is interrupted when he’s “recruited” (read: violently abducted) by Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig) of the Anti-Villain League.
At Anti-Villain League headquarters, Gru learns that a secret Antarctic laboratory has been stolen by a giant flying magnet (yep, the entire lab was stolen; it’s made of metal, now’s not the time to question logic). The laboratory had been testing a chemical compound, PX-41, that, when injected, can transform animals and people into violent, indestructible monsters. They’ve found traces of the substance at the local mall and believe one of the shopkeepers is an undercover super-villain. So, they need Gru (whose past villainy allows him to understand the criminal psyche) to partner with Lucy to pose as mall employees and help identify the culprit.
There’s also a handful of subplots involving the Minions’ misadventures, eldest daughter Margot’s first boyfriend, Gru’s dating life, and a possible romance with Lucy. Because the film has to quickly bounce between each of these stories, none is focused enough to really flourish. The tone becomes inconsistent and the script has to rely on contrived conveniences to keep things moving. Nothing has time to breathe or develop organically. Individual scenes and gags are often successful, but don’t come together to form a cohesive or rewarding whole.
The biggest – and frankly, weirdest – missteps, though, involve Despicable Me 2’s treatment of ethnic minorities and women. Yeah, really.
Two of the mall’s business owners are singled out as possible suspects: Eduardo Perez (Benjamin Bratt) who owns Salsa y Salsa, a mexican restaurant, and Floyd Eagle-san (Ken Jeong) who runs a wig shop. Both characters are one-dimensional caricatures, whose race is only noted so that it can be joked about.There’s no reason for Eduardo to be a large, salsa-dancing Mexican or for Floyd to have a Fu Manchu mustache and speak in an exaggerated accent. These depictions aren’t hateful, per se, just unnecessary; so even if I’m not exactly offended, it definitely seems out of place in a children’s movie.
Additionally, aside from Lucy, the adult women are also portrayed as shallow stereotypes. There’s a gossipy neighbor who I’m sure has a name, but nothing she does is interesting enough for me to remember it (I do remember, however, that the only way to shut her up is to spray her with a high-powered hose). She only exists so that she may desperately attempt to set up Gru with one of her many equally uninteresting friends, like the drunk floozy who falls over tables at a kid’s birthday party or the dumb slut (we know she’s a slut because she wears a low-cut leopard print dress…that’s the universal sign for sluttiness, right?) who is so annoying she has to be tranquilized and strapped to the top of a car (apparently the hose won’t work on her, she needs to be banged up a bit).
Considering the first film’s celebration of nontraditional family structure and gender roles, this – along with the early insinuation that Gru needs to find a woman to mother the girls, and Lucy’s (the only strong female) later relegation to the love-interest role – is especially unfortunate.
What hurts most though, is that this sequel has lost the heart that made the original special. The Minions and slapstick humor were lowbrow in Despicable Me too, but there was a human element that elevated the characters’ journey above the pratfalls and fart jokes. Gru had an arc in that film, but here he ends up more or less in the same place he started. The sweetness brought out of him by his three girls are the best parts of this movie, but it’s not the focus like it was last time.
I’m not saying I want a retread of the same themes or that the first movie is some untouchable masterpiece, but if the sequel is going to try something new, it better at least be worthy. Otherwise you’re just left with some really cheap gags and a few light chuckles.