The biggest challenge of Despicable Me 2? How to flip Gru from super villain to gruff hero now that his highest priority is fatherhood. For director Chris Renaud, the reference point was Terminator 2 in having him recruited to catch the latest baddie bent on world domination.
"We still had the challenge of how to keep his Gruness, the curmudgeonly cynical guy, so we worked to do that a couple of ways," suggests Renaud. The first was through his parenting. For instance, he's forced to dress up as a fairy princess for daughter Agnes' birthday. The second was dealing with his frustration at dating. This traces back to his childhood.
"It's traumatic for Gru both personally and as a father with his oldest daughter Margo [Miranda Cosgrove] who has her first boyfriend," Renaud adds. "Then we paired him with agent Lucy Wilde [Kristen Wiig]. She's bubbly, energetic, honest. She makes a great counterpoint to Gru. But when she comes to his defense, he notices her."
Renaud believes viewers have embraced Gru because there's a vicarious thrill to villainy. "But I also think on a more relatable level that Gru is a bad parent," Renaud points out. "And that most parents, if they're honest with themselves, can identify more with somebody making bad parenting choices than somebody making good ones. And I also think the character is torn between family and career, which is a very powerful decision for most people. It's that kind of humor when he pops the kid's balloon in the first film that's a villainy with a wink."
("My belief is that audiences react to characters the way one reacts to people -- you just happen to like them," adds producer Chris Meledandri.)
In terms of upping the animation, Illumination Mac Guff in France added global illumination to its lighting arsenal and, when combined with more compositing, this added richness to the skin where they had issues getting gray in the shadows.
But more than anything, Mac Guff is maturing. "Instead of doing the kind of policing for errors on the first film, we were able to have more creative discussions about cloth effects and getting a better understanding of the physics of smoke," Renaud continues. "We also worked on our crowd animation tools with the Minions. We don't use a lot of procedural animation. It has a hand-drawn sensibility because we're more cartoonish in nature."
Speaking of the Minions, who have grown in popularity and will have their own spinoff next year, they were the hardest to animate when they turn into purple monsters a la Gremlins because they had real-looking hair and there was a lot of interaction. "We were inspired by early things we were seeing from the trailers of World War Z," Renaud admits. "And we wanted to have shots where there's a wave of purple bodies chasing our main characters, so in those scenes toward the end we were pushing the sheer quantity and style of animation."
Although the Minions were an after thought in the first movie, they were central to the sequel's subplot. "It was like Hellboy: The Golden Army," Renaud insists. "When it came to this movie, we knew that we would have an issue trying to top stealing the Moon as a narrative drive. It felt like a natural place to look internally to what was working. So working in the Minions as part of the super villain's plot seemed a natural."
For the baddie, they looked at many archetypes, including a ventriloquist. But in the end they went with a macho masked guy voiced by Benjamin Bratt after Al Pacino left because of "creative differences." According to Renaud, he's a doppelganger for Gru, going through some of the same mid-life issues, including being a single dad.
Renaud worked closely with both Pacino and Bratt (who stepped in with less than two months to voice the role) and only offers that Pacino had a different interpretation of how the character should evolve. "And at a certain point it's easier to move on. For what he did, Al brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm. Obviously, because he's such a legend, for me it was certainly a great experience. But, again, Benjamin was able to bring the character to life with an authenticity and energy as well. It's just one of those things and I think the film stands on its own with his performance."
("Somehow, between the work that he did and Chris Renaud, the part fully belongs to him," echoes Meledandri.)
And, of course, Gru belongs to Steve Carell the way Clouseau belonged to Peter Sellers. "He inhabits this character so holistically," Renaud proclaims. "The fun of that voice and of that accent is a major appeal. The difference is that he knows it so well now. He found the groove with Gru."
But Renaud admits it's a crazy time for animation with such intense competition. "I think it's overcrowded and there are definitely going to be some bodies in the road," he predicts. "Truthfully, we've already seen a shift. It used to be that if you released a computer-animated film, it was an event and it made money. But now we're seeing films perform softly. But sometimes you make something new and different and nobody goes to see it, so it's a tricky thing.
"That said, I'm hoping that people will respond to this in a positive way. We worked hard to try and deliver something new with the characters and try and evolve them in a way that maintains what people responded to in the first film without retelling what we did."