Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Despicable Me 2: Villainy lite

Despicable Me 2 (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, and quite needlessly, for mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang

Thank goodness for the minions.

2010’s Despicable Me got much of its hilarious edge from the personality transformation experienced by Gru, the vaguely Slavic super-villain who mellows out — but only somewhat — after encountering a trio of trusting little girls.

Sent undercover as the owner of a mega-mall's boutique cupcake emporium, Gru is
annoyed to discover that he has been saddled with an assisant: Lucy Wilde, an
aggressively eager agent of the Anti-Villian League. Their goal: to figure out which
neighboring shopkeeper actually is a dastardly criminal mastermind.
Gru’s introductory strut in that first film — to a deliciously snarky title song written and performed by Pharrell Williams — was the stuff of greatness. Here was a gleeful scoundrel who’d embrace badness big and small, whether stealing the Earth’s Moon, or stealing candy from a baby. And he wouldn’t merely snatch the sweet from the crestfallen tyke; he’d replace it with a cod liver oil sucker.

Watching this fellow struggle against the arrival of a hitherto buried good side — trying to stay wicked in the face of unconditional love from Agnes, the youngest of his new wards — was the stuff of classic character comedy.

This sequel’s Gru, alas, has completed this makeover, and has fully embraced his light side. As a result, he’s both less interesting and less funny. His inventive genius now reduced to concocting playful gadgets for Agnes’ birthday party, the low point arrives when — a paid actress having failed to show up — Gru dresses himself as the world’s most unlikely fairy princess.

Which, yes, results in a genuinely poignant moment between Agnes and her de facto daddy.

I don’t intend to suggest that Despicable Me 2 is either disappointing or unsatisfying: far from it. Returning directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud maintain their engaging blend of character comedy, goofy slapstick and oddball peril, and returning scripters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul certainly know the territory.

But the latter are on their own this time, whereas the first film derived from a story by Sergio Pablos ... and he may be the essential missing ingredient. Despicable Me 2 is a more conventional animated comedy, in terms of its standard-issue narrative and predictable plot hiccups. We never knew what would happen in the first film, which was much of its charm; this sequel, in contrast, lacks that element of uncertainty.

Fortunately, Daurio and Paul have the good sense to grant more screen time to the first film’s breakout stars: the mischievous, hapless and hilariously speech-challenged minions.

We can’t get enough of them, and this new film takes ample advantage of that fact.

(To be more precise, we certainly haven’t yet gotten enough of them. Let’s see what happens next year, when they get their own movie.)

With Gru (again voiced by Steve Carell) out of the super-criminal game, he has settled into the comfortable shoes of adoptive parenthood. He dotes on little Agnes (Elsie Fisher), tries to keep hyperactive Edith (Dana Gaier) out of trouble, and does his best to ignore Margo’s (Miranda Cosgrove) slide into boy-crazy adolescence.

Gru’s massive underground lab, once the source of magnificently devious weapons and vile thingamajigs, has been re-purposed into a factory that crafts signature jams and jellies ... much to the delight of the minions, who love sampling the raw ingredients. They’re less interested in the finished result; Gru’s resident genius, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), just can’t get the mix right.

Nor is he interested in trying. Gru’s first crisis arrives when Dr. Nefario reluctantly departs, having been offered alternate employment with the promise of actual skullduggery. The second crisis erupts when Gru is snatched by Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), an eager-beaver agent of the Anti-Villain League.

The AVL chief, Silas Ramsbottom (Steve Coogan), has become deeply disturbed by a recent eruption of super-villainy, and most particularly by the discovery of a nasty serum that — in some laboratory test footage — transforms a cute, cuddly bunny into a purple, frazzle-haired, mindless and indestructible eating machine.

Obviously, such a serum would have ghastly results, if employed for the wrong purposes.

Borrowing a note from To Catch a Thief, Ramsbottom gives Gru a cover identity and makes him the owner of a cupcake emporium in a nearby mega-mall. Ramsbottom is convinced that one of the mall’s other shop owners is the mastermind behind this dastardly plot; Gru and Lucy — who’s sweet on her new partner — are tasked with figuring out which shop owner.

Gru’s suspicion immediately turns to Eduardo Perez (Benjamin Bratt), the rotund and flirty owner of the nearby Salsa & Salsa restaurant, because he bears a striking resemblance to history’s most heinous super-villain ever, El Macho. But that’s not possible, because El Macho perished years ago, when he rode a dynamite-laden shark into an erupting volcano.

Evidence points instead to Floyd Eagle-san (Ken Jeong), proprietor of the local hair-replacement club for men. But Gru can’t get Eduardo out of his mind ... and the obsession becomes even more intense when the restaurant owner’s suave son, Antonio (Moises Arias), makes a move on the smitten Margo.

At this point, Gru’s objectivity has been compromised, and his increasingly frenzied suggestions fall on Ramsbottom’s deaf ears.

Meanwhile, Gru’s minions have been vanishing — singly, and in groups — and spirited to parts unspecified, for reasons unknown. Gru doesn’t notice for quite some time; it’s not easy to keep track of several hundred (thousand?) nearly identical yellow, pill-shaped henchmen in blue little-kid overalls. Even if they do have individual names such as Kevin, Bob and Stuart.

On top of which, Gru is forced to contend with various undesired match-making efforts, whether they come from nosy neighbor Jillian (Nasim Pedrad) or Gru’s own wards. Not to mention his oil-and-vinegar relationship with Lucy, which we all know is destined for greater things.

The core plot advances leisurely, intercut with unrelated minion escapades and sidebar distractions. Some of the latter integrate nicely with the narrative; others don’t. Gru and Lucy’s battle with Eduardo’s attack chicken is quite funny, whereas Gru’s blind date with a fitness-obsessed bottle blonde doesn’t work at all.

The minions pretty much steal the show, because of their impressionable innocence, their bratty (but benevolent) tendency toward mischief, and their side-splitting approach toward speech. If the apparent gibberish sometimes sounds like actual words, that’s no accident; Coffin and Renaud voice all the minions with a random blend of French, English, Spanish, Italian and Indian.

So, while a French theater patron may recognize the minion phrase poulet tiki masala as an Indian chicken dish, the words certainly don’t have that context in the storyline.

As for what happens to all those missing minions, well, let me point out that the filmmakers were inspired by a 1960 Warner Bros. Tweety and Sylvester cartoon, Hyde and Go Tweet. Draw your own conclusions.

Carell has a great time with Gru’s often exasperated, Eastern European overtones, and the animators do a correspondingly slick job of matching the character’s expressions and movement to the actor’s vocal mannerisms. The overly enthusiastic Lucy is coordinated equally well with Wiig’s mildly snarky delivery.

Bratt is a stitch as the overblown Eduardo, and Brand is just as funny as the ancient, ultra-lethargic Dr. Nefario. Cosgrove, Gaier and Fisher are adorably girl-like as their respective characters.

Mostly, though, this film benefits from Coffin and Renaud’s unerring sense of timing. They’re equally adept at both extremes: getting the maximum emotional mileage from a tender moment between Gru and Agnes, or earning a belly laugh from competitive, shifty-eyed interactions between minions.

Editor Gregory Perler keeps things moving at a good clip; the 98-minute length feels just right. And you’ll definitely want to hang around for the minions’ final-scene cover of the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.”

All told, this sequel is a thoroughly enjoyable lark, with enough to captivate both adult and small-fry viewers. Any mild disappointment arises mostly from remembering its predecessor; Coffin and Renaud haven’t maintained the momentum present in (for example) each new Ice Age entry.

But if faced with an Independence Day weekend choice between Despicable Me 2 and the overwrought, under-humored and occasionally loathsome new take on The Lone Ranger, I strongly advise the former.

You can’t go wrong with the minions.

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