Despicable Me 2 so close on the heels of Monsters University is exactly the kind of one-two punch of white-hot competent mediocrity that makes both of the movies seem just a little bit worse than they are individually. Or more disheartening, at least, which might even be worse. They are, both of them, children's entertainment about which the most positive thing you can claim - indeed, one of the only absolutely judgments you could make of either - is that they are "harmless", and even that may be giving DM2 a hair too much credit. That's better than nothing, I suppose, but sitting and watching DM2, it's hard not to wonder with just a smidgen of despair, when did we agree that "harmless" was enough? These are children we're talking about, the most important people in any culture, people who need and deserve to be challenged, surprised, offered the chance to expand their minds at the best time in any human lifespan to actually create new ways of thinking. And what does this film, with its monstrous opening weekend (the third biggest July 4th opening on record) give to that target audience? "Remember how the last movie had a fart gun? There are more of them now".
2010's Despicable Me is emphatically not my idea of a classic (though I gather that it is many other people's idea of one), but it has a pleasant enough sensibility: Bondian supervillain Gru (Steve Carell), who delights in being evil, is thrown in with three adorable children, and obliged to protect them while continuing to wreak villainy in the world. Unfortunately, that film already predicts the insurmountable flaw of DM2: by the end of the first movie, Gru had reformed, and the prickly fun of the first two-thirds-ish devolved into tacky, syrupy bromides. That doesn't leave any place for the sequel to go but further into saccharine and unearned cutesiness; and as much as the last film didn't leave a good space for a sequel, this one leaves even less, meaning that inevitable Despicable Me 3 is going to be an epically pointless grind.
Anyway, Gru is a nice domestic father now, hosting fairy princess-themed birthday parties and all, and that's when Agent Lucy Wild (Kristen Wiig) of the Anti-Villain League tries to drag him back into the life: there's been a massively dangerous chemical stolen, and the AVL has decided that it takes a thief to catch a thief, and Gru is exactly the reformed baddie for the job. Thus do he and Lucy end up undercover at a suburban shopping mall, operating a cupcake shop as a front, while investigating the various shopkeepers, one of whom must be a supervillain in disguise.
That's just the A-plot, mind you; DM2 is amazingly rife with subplots and little one-offs that aren't even developed enough to earn the distinction of "subplot" (the tedious business with a wig seller voiced by the reliably unlikable Ken Jeong is a perfect case in point), and that's probably its second biggest problem: it doesn't commit to anything. Gru's crazy overreaction when eldest adopted daughter Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) starts flirting with the son of the man he suspects of being presumed-dead supervillain El Macho (Benjamin Bratt), for example, is a character thread that, if overworked, at least seems reliable and sturdy until the film randomly decides it's not required. The cupcake shop is used for a single scene's worth of uninspired visual gags. The big villainous plan where all of Gru's little yellow minions (voiced by directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud) are turned into monsters is resolved practically in the same breath as its brought up. The film has absolutely no escalation, no stakes, no follow-through: just random, frequently nonsensical bits of slapstick.
Insofar as this is acceptable at all, it's solely because Coffin and Renaud and the animators of Illumination Entertainment, in the last three years, have vastly deepened their cartoon logic palette, building a world that is more enjoyable to look at, and bound by a more satisfyingly midcentury idea of physically absurdist comedy than the first movie. But even in a cartoon that consists of nothing but a coyote being hit on the head by boulders, there's a throughline, a sense of evolution. DM2 has a narrative spine, but no interest in expanse; scenes are self-contained and the film's incredibly thorough abandonment of its actual characters in favor of the super-marketable but one-note minions reveals as clearly as anything could that for all the film's brightly colored shine, its intentions are broadly mercenary. Like everything else, the minions are dragged back, but not enlarged, nor treated with much story logic; only mechanical repositioning to enable the next joke (e.g. why, pray tell, do they need to be stored in a prison that looks like a tropical island?).
That's the second biggest problem. The first, simply put, is that whatever soul the first movie had, the sequel enthusiastically abandons. The first film's sarcastic bad guy and defiantly weird orphans felt different, if hardly new; and the film's climactic endorsement of family being what you make of it had a nicely 21st Century tang to it. DM2 announces early on its intention of being a blander celebration of convention, particularly as far as nuclear families go, and it never really budges from that point, particularly in an ending that seems to undo all the personality that the first film, and even the best parts of this film, worked so hard to establish. There's still an attempt at the playfully naughty misanthropy, but it feels tired and worn, and simply not that funny. Spurts are funny; the more the film channels the '50s cartoons that inspire some elements of character design, the funnier it is. But there's a lot of reheated stuff in here, much of it attached to the equally reheated, unconvincing, and unnecessary romantic thread.
But still and all, it's not really something you can object to. It exists, and there's not much else to say about it, other than to be a little sad that this is what passes for the height of children's entertainment now. Still, like I said, it's harmless. Mostly.