Like much of the summer's entertainment, Despicable Me 2 is not so much a film as an exercise in franchise-building.
I was not a huge fan of the first film, which struck me as an assemblage of pieces borrowed from other films: The villain was Syndrome from The Incredibles, the yellow, capsule-shaped Minions were the Three-Eyed Aliens from the Toy Story films, Steve Carrell's accent as Gru was lifted from Boris Badenov and so forth. But if Despicable Me had been made at Pixar - or Disney or DreamWorks - by the time it was half-finished, the artists would have realized the key relationship wasn’t between Gru and little girls, but between Gru and Minions and reshaped the material instead of waiting for a second feature.
The Minions appear prominently in the new film, the ubiquitous posters and the related merchandise: as I'm writing this, eBay has nearly 7,000 Despicable Me items on sale.
When the film opens, Gru (voice by Steve Carrell) has given up villainy to be a doting adoptive father to Margo, Edith and Agnes. Instead of evil schemes, he’s making a line of jams and jellies. Life at his house has become so tame, his assistant Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) leaves him for a more exciting employer. Lucy (Kristen Wiig, who really works at being annoying) of the Anti-Villain League recruits Gru to help them catch a new master villain—to catch a criminal mastermind you need someone who can think like a criminal mastermind.
The League thinks their target is Floyd (Ken Jeong), who runs a wig salon. But Gru insists Mexican restaurant owner Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt) is none other than the villain El Macho in disguise—and the real culprit.
While all this is going on, the girls and a pushy neighbor are trying to find Gru a date.
Is Gru right about El Macho? Will Gru foil his plot to turn the Minions into a murderous mini-army that will enable him to rule the world? Do Gru and Lucy end up together? Anyone who doesn't know the answers to these questions 20 minutes into the film hasn’t been inside a movie theater in the last several years.
Once again, directors Pierre Coffin and Christian Renaud (who also provide the Minions’ voices) copy Brad Bird’s inspired direction. Gru's confrontation with El Macho is lifted from Mr. Incredibles visit to Syndrome's headquarters on Nomanisan Island, and a flashback of Gru being rejects as a boy is a shamelessly rip-off of Anton Ego's recollection of his mother’s comforting meal in Ratatouille.
Benjamin Britt was reportedly a last-minute replacement for Al Pacino who jumped ship as a voice late in the production. The vocal and visual cliches Eduardo/El Macho embodies may well raise the hackles of Hispanic viewers. When the neighbor sets up Gru with a vapidly grotesque woman, Lucy rescues him by drugging her. The scenes of “partners” lugging the unconscious date around seem calculated to offend female viewers.
But another sequel (this one about the Minions) is already in the works for 2014 and the Minions products are already in the stores, so the film’s merits - or lack of them - probably don’t matter. But it would have been nice if any sequence in the film had the originality and wit of Daffy Duck's classic line, "You're... despicable!"