Wednesday, July 24, 2013

DESPICABLE ME 2 Is a Step Up From The Original


- In an age when kids films often strive to be more than just kids films - an age of Pixar - it can be hard to fully appreciate a movie that aims squarely for the hearts and minds of the under-12 crowd. Maybe that's why I came out of the first Despicable Me feeling only mildly excited by the franchise. But you know what? Despicable 2 really won me over, despite my lack of enthusiasm going in. Everything to me felt more polished, bigger, and better than in the original. The movie's now got just enough meat to keep viewers of all ages interested. And the animation has been given a substantial upgrade, so that the look of the film now feels on par with the best in the genre. Despicable Me 2 is well worth a look, even if you weren't blown away by the first film. This one is better on all levels.

The first Despicable Me was all about the transition of dastardly supervillain Gru into a kinder, gentler sort - becoming the adoptive father to three young girls and realizing that, perhaps, it was time to move beyond evil schemes to steal the moon and the like. In this go-round, Gru takes another big leap towards the side of good. In order to help put a stop to the newly resurfaced badguy El Macho, a secret group known as The Anti-Villain League recruits Gru to help track him down and preemptively put a stop to whatever his next evil plan may be.

Gru has some mixed emotions about doing the bidding of the League. And he also has mixed emotions about the woman who recruits him: Lucy. Voiced with a wacky sort of Type-A moxy by Kristin Wiig, Lucy is the perfect partner and foil for Gru. Seriously, I didn't think that the Despicable Me series could pull off an involving and layered love story with this amount of skill, but that's exactly what it's done. Gru and Lucy - aided by the fantastic voice acting of Steve Carell and Wiig, are a truly dynamic duo.

And of course, there are also the Minions. I think I perhaps was suffering from Minion overexposure going into the film, but I also confess that they totally won me over with their often-hilarious antics in the movie. What keeps them from becoming annoying and repetitive is a great, Gremlins-esque twist in which some of the lovable yellow creatures are turned into monstrous purple "dark" Minions.

The Minions and their misadventures really benefit from the movie's animation upgrade. Illumination animation studios has always had an eye for fun character design, but the first film lacked the visual wow factor of its brethren from Dreamworks, Disney, and Pixar. Now, the movie looks as good if not better than anything else out there, with some truly breathtaking action sequences and set pieces, and some really striking visuals overall - with many scenes seemingly suitable for framing. Character design is still a strength as well. The Dark Minions are really cool. So too is El Macho and his over-the-top lair and weaponry. And I like the further-developed personalities of Gru's adoptive daughters - with Margo now cast as the geeky-cool teen, Edith as the tomboyish middle child with a destructive streak, and Edith as the too-cute youngest child who Gru hopes will stay that way forever.

The animation is more impressive, the story and characters more complex ... but the other thing that separates the sequel from its predecessor is just how funny it is. It's often laugh out loud funny - and not just from the physical, Looney Tunes-esque antics of the Minions. There seemed to me to be a wit and cleverness in the script that was lacking to some degree in the first film. A little less Sesame Street, a little more The Simpsons. The movie's got some really nice gags, jokes, and quotables. Plus, in plot points - like the Gru-Lucy relationship, and Gru's relationship with his daughters - there is that bit of sophistication that had me much more emotionally invested in the characters than before. That same sophistication is also there in the way the movie embraces world-building. Whether it's through fleshing out side characters like Dr. Nefario, giving us a bit more of a glimpse into Gru's villainous past, or just creating more appealing settings - like the dazzlingly futuristic shopping mall where Gru goes undercover to get dirt on El Macho - Despicable Me 2 feels less rough-around-the-edges than the first film.

What would make The Despicable Me franchise even better? Well, despite what I said above, there's still a lot about this world that feels sketchy, random, and inconsequential. Most centrally, the brand of "evil" once practiced by Gru is so lightweight that his turn to the side of good is still sort of "meh." I don't need this to be Shakespeare, but I'd like to see a little more thematic weight given to what should be a pretty impactful, central arc of the franchise - that Gru has chosen to do good with his life rather than harm. It's a difficult thing to navigate in a kids' movie, I understand. But something still feels a little off to me about the whole central conceit of these films ... does Gru still have "evil" impulses? Is he still semi-despicable? These sorts of unanswered questions also apply to the movie's universe. Like I said, the sequel does a better job of world-building than the first, but it all still feels just a tad bit ramshackle. Are there heroes in this world? The equivalent of a Superman or James Bond? What *are* Minions, exactly? And so on ... Point being: there's still an overtly cartoonish, simplistic element to Despicable Me 2 - one that feels increasingly odd as the films become more thematically complex.

Overall though, I had a blast with the movie. Whereas once I wouldn't have cared about additional sequels, now I'm sort of pumped to see the franchise get even bigger and crazier. The movie's oddball sensibilities are, mostly, super-endearing. And there's a manic energy to the Minions and to the movie in general that is pretty hard not to like. Yes, as an adult I enjoyed having a little more action, adventure, humor, and romance to make things more palatable to my tastes. But I can also appreciate the pure imagination and childlike sense of playfulness present in the film.

My Grade: B+

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