"Despicable Me 2" picks up almost exactly where the first movie left off, with Gru watching over three young girls – Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), the eldest; Edith (Dana Gaier), the middle girl and something of a tomboy; and Agnes (Elsie Fisher), the youngest, who loves all sorts of sugary fairy tale stuff (which clashes nicely with Gru's doom-and-gloom routine). After a snowy Siberian lab is literally lifted off the ground, the Anti-Villain League, led by Steve Coogan, recruits Gru to help find the super-villain responsible and bring him to justice. This results in Gru going undercover as a strip mall cupcake shop owner and quickly turning his attention to Eduardo Perez (Benjamin Bratt, in a role originally voiced by both Javier Bardem and then later Al Pacino), who Gru suspects is the former Mexican wrestling-mask-wearing villain El Macho.
This is all very trite, and every joke is belabored to the point of exhaustion, with a number of plot threads that weave in and out of the main narrative but don't particularly go anywhere, including Margo having a crush on El Macho's teenage son, and Gru's weapons technician Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) leaving his organization because they simply aren't evil enough anymore. There's even a slack, haphazard romantic subplot wedged in there for no apparent reason between Gru and Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), another agent for the Anti-Villain League. Maybe someone thought that little kids love to see romantic subplots between two characters who look like they were doodled on the back of a serial killer's notebook.
If only the rest of the movie was as inspired. The orphans, who served a necessary plot function in the first film and added some much-needed heart, feel burdensome in the sequel. They're rarely given any screen time and in that screen time, each character is so anonymous that they blur together, like a cuddly smear. Meanwhile, the comedic possibilities of Gru owning a cupcake shop in a mall are completely squandered to the point that this whole subplot is barely acknowledged. The designs for the characters in "Despicable Me 2" are pleasurably bonkers, continuing the aesthetic boldness of the first film, particularly with everything to do with El Macho (his Mayan temple-styled lair is tremendous). While Illumination's movies are noticeably cheaper looking than other animated features, it lends them a kind of throwaway charm. The new Pharrell songs are pretty ace, too, it goes without saying. You just wish that the kind of attention lavished on the visuals of "Despicable Me 2" could have carried over to its storytelling. "Despicable Me 2" lacks emotion and depth, and all the minions in the world can't make up for that. [C-]