I enjoyed the first Despicable Me as a mildly effective babysitting movie; I thought its world was too unformed and its scenario too shopworn, but I loved its grumpy villain-made-good Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) and his three adorable charges. Now comes the inevitable sequel, which vastly improves upon the original by doing what all good sequels should: expanding and enhancing the world we thought we knew.
We didn’t see much of the distinguished opposition in the first film: the good guys presumably out there tracking down villains like Gru. Despicable Me 2 corrects that oversight with the addition of the Anti-Villain League… who were apparently all on vacation when he went and stole the moon. Now, they need his help to stop a new super criminal (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), something he’s reluctant to do with his three adopted daughters to look after. They have some powerful methods of persuasion, however, mostly wielded by Lucy (Kristen Wiig), an agent just as brilliant and daffy as Gru.
The storyline is slight, but it makes the smart choice of shifting gears. Gru’s little girls get some very cute subplots here, but they’re no longer the focus like they were in the first film; a good thing since their story has pretty much been told. Instead, we get heaping fistfuls of those silly yellow minions, who provide an inexhaustible supply of very funny pratfalls (and figure prominently in the new villain’s evil scheme). Directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud do extremely well by keeping them front and center, as well as letting Gru continue his put-upon straight man role, which Carell really seems to relish.
All that’s par for the course: reliable, but unsurprising. What really gives Despicable Me 2 its kick is Lucy, who comes as an absolute breath of fresh air. She’s smart and capable, but a little accident-prone, and her often-hapless efforts to save the world make her the perfect match for our exasperated hero. The filmmakers make her funny without being the butt of the joke, tough without being overwhelming, and a perfect fit in every way to Gru’s wacky super-spy world. We don’t see a lot of female characters like her in the movies. Not now, not ever. Little girls are usually out of luck when it comes to cartoon role models who aren’t princesses or fairies. Lucy swings in to save them in more ways than one.
The film itself gamely follows her example, working a fresh side of the old “great for kids and grown-ups” alike cliché. It gives adults an easy window to younger days, staying away from pop culture references and overt winks in favor of the sort of knowing ridiculousness that younger audience members won’t quite grasp. Despicable Me 2 is child-like rather than childish: reminding us of the innocent joy of goofy noises or Stoogian pokes in the eye without pandering to our baser natures. (The wee ones have plenty of distractions of their own with the minions running amuck.)
Projects like this rarely engender any sort of confidence, with a predecessor that kind of worked but made far more money than perhaps it merited. That usually leads to a series of increasingly desperate cash-in sequels that make us regret ever enjoying the first film to begin with (Ice Age, we’re looking at you). Despicable Me 2 defies that fate, suggesting that this universe still has plenty of life in it while adding new characters who feel like welcome additions instead of shoddy excuses to sell more toys. With its hero’s irascible grumpiness intact – letting us share in his misanthropy while still saving the world – the film easily surpasses the original, while leaving room for further sequels that (thank God) don’t feel like an extended prison sentence. Keep it up, you magnificent pointy-nosed bastard. For the first time, I’m full-score behind you.