The original "Despicable Me," released back in 2010 by Illumination Entertainment (a mini-Pixar that would go on to release "Hop" and "The Lorax") was, at its best, an easily forgettable trifle with a handful of hummable songs by Pharrell Williams. It concerned a super-villain named Gru (Steve Carell), who adopts a trio of adorable orphans in an attempt to get back at his arch nemesis, a villain named Vector (Jason Segel). Of course, the orphans melt his evil black heart and he decides to give up the villainous lifestyle to be a stay-at-home-dad. It was pat but it was over pretty quickly and the characters had a nice Charles Addams-by-way-of-Hanna-Barbara look to them. But in no way was the story something that cried out for a follow-up. This is a sequel that's even less necessary than "Monsters University;" often times it feels like the movie can't even justify it's own existence while you're watching it. Rudderless and inane, "Despicable Me 2" goes through the motions until it finally sputters and runs out of gas.
"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 there's a silver lining to the whole broken-down "Despicable Me 2" enterprise, which was occasionally so tiresome that we had to fight to stay awake… it's the presence of the minions. In the first "Despicable Me" we were introduced, without much explanation, to the minions, a band of speechless little yellow guys who did Gru's bidding. Some of them had two eyes, some of them had one, they weren't human (they have three fingers) but they were definitely something that you could latch onto, so much so that they became the de facto mascot for Illumination Entertainment (there's even a 3D attraction at Universal Studios where you get turned into a minion). The most joyful moment of the first movie wasn't even in the movie proper, it was during the credits, when the minions, taking advantage of the then-still-a-novelty use of 3D, to bounce around on the audience's heads. While their role hasn't necessarily been expanded (they're starring in their own spin-off movie, alongside the voices of Jon Hamm and Sandra Bullock, that'll be out next year), it has been deepened to some degree, complete with an enjoyable, big finale sing along to "YMCA" (which for some might raise some interesting questions about the yellow creatures).
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-]