The erstwhile villain known simply as Gru (Steve Carell) has turned his attentions, and the energies of his mass-produced subordinates, toward making jams and jellies, a fact worked for some comic mileage early into Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud’s Despicable Me 2. It’s another reason to let the unintelligible minions cause trouble, which the film isn’t short on, but the sequence where we see Gru’s followers stomping fruit and canning jam jars ends with a revealing irony. Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), Gru’s Q-like colleague, creates a jam consisting of every fruit flavor available, but the taste makes everyone sick. It’s what passes for a poignant moment in a film that attempts to appeal to every cinematic taste on the spectrum and ultimately offers scant satisfactions in return.
Gru’s jam-and-jelly start-up is put on the back burner when he’s hired by the Anti-Villain League (AVL) to hunt down a mysterious baddie who flies around in a magnetized ship and who the organization believes works in secret at Gru’s local mall. He’s paired with AVL agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig) and something like a romance begins between the pair, though the script shows less than base interest in developing Lucy as anything beyond Gru’s Girl Friday. It does, though, give the adorable Agnes (Elsie Kate Fisher), Gru’s youngest adopted daughter, reason enough to start dreaming of Lucy as her new mom, and the film latches onto her big-eyed vision of the nuclear family, even if it has nothing interesting, or coherent, to say about this yearning.
To lend even a modicum of nuance or, dare I say it, insight to Agnes’s dream shouldn’t be a tall order for an animated romp so predisposed with the idea of the family unit. Of course, the film is busy simultaneously attempting to appeal to the zaniness of the pre-adolescent crowd, while also creating a send-up of super-villain signifiers and stirring up a quasi-believable teen romance, so there isn’t much room for the courtship of Agnes’s adopted father. Screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, who also penned the original film, expedite all character and narrative development to fit in more half-measured subplots (Margo’s new boyfriend, Dr. Nefario’s resignation), which takes the focus away from the more admirable elements of Despicable Me (the gadgets, Gru’s struggle with villainy) and make Despicable Me 2 feel oddly incomplete.
More importantly, this cheap plea for the enjoyment of everyone (read: no one) waters down Gru’s relationship with his new nemesis, El Macho (Benjamin Bratt), who in his public life is simply Eduardo, the gregarious owner of a Mexican eatery and the father of Margo’s boyfriend. As two reformed villains attempting to be better parents, their relationship is hugely promising as an extension of the first film’s notions on growing up and growing out of unhealthy habits and ambitions. And that the 40-year-old virgin himself voices the main character only compounds the possibilities. None of this is realized, however, and El Macho remains as woefully underdeveloped as the other characters.
The film gets laughs when it taps into the anarchic spirit of animation, almost entirely embodied by the minions and their shenanigans, and there’s something unexpectedly amusing about the fact that Gru’s new boss (Steve Coogan) resembles a plump James Fox. There’s also a rather funny bit involving El Macho’s fake death by riding a shark strapped with dynamite into an active volcano. Such a moment speaks to the imaginative origins of Gru and his brood, which have here been sullied and stifled in a desperate, shallow bid at universal likability. At its best, Despicable Me 2 recalls the wild comic bedlam of Looney Tunes or golden-era Nickelodeon programming (Ren & Stimpy, Rocko’s Modern Life), but the script’s jumble of plot asides and family-friendly pandering is enough to make you want to root for a hero.