The criminal mastermind known only as Gru is a great movie character. To Steve Carell's credit, he's presented well both in the original Despicable Me and its new sequel. It may have begun the way a lot of things do in the world of digital animation (Despicable Me is a Universal product; Universal is related to NBC by marriage and Carell was the major comedic star of NBC when the franchise launched), but Gru alone is worth more than many Madagascar and Ice Age flicks.
Because of him, Despicable Me 2 can win you over with one hand tied behind its back. That's the luxury of having a great character, and that also tells you just how bad franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean became even with the brilliant creation that is—or was—Captain Jack Sparrow. Gru is the sort of personality filmmakers can put in a lot of scenarios and it still works. Here, he's put in a princess' dress and in a blossoming romantic relationship and still manages to be really entertaining.
The problem, admittedly a small one, is that the writers and directors probably know they have some leeway here and don't do more to make the film itself sharper and more engaging. After seeing the error of his devious ways, Gru has retired to take care of the three orphan girls he bonded with so strongly in the first film. These days, he and his big-brained scientist, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) are using their ingenuity to create jellies and jams, not weapons of mass destruction. But a new and dangerous supervillain is on the loose and Gru is called into action by the Anti-Villain League for his expertise.
Gru eventually falls for his partner on the case, a by-the-book spy named Lucy (Kristen Wiig). As they get closer to discovering which evildoer has stolen a secret formula that can turn anything into a ferocious beastie, Gru and Lucy stumble ever so closer together. Somewhat remarkably, this storyline is handled gracefully and subtly, neither a real strength of cartoons that have to engage 6-year-olds.
Less praise can be thrown in the direction of the action, though. The villainy is tepid and borderline uninteresting. Benjamin Bratt cuts through as El Macho, a Lothario, restaurateur and all-around shady character, and Gru's hordes of yipping minions are in fine form throughout (especially as a boy band). But for several pronounced stretches, Despicable Me 2 labors and ambles a bit too much.
It could be far worse, however: This is still a pretty enjoyable 90 minutes ... or at least 65 of them are. But beyond the romance, the story doesn't take anybody anywhere. You could skip this installment entirely and not miss anything, and the same could be said of the characters.
As with the recent Monsters University, the filmmakers understand that there's no pressure to reinvent a formula that works. After all, that's precisely why anyone uses a formula. So, for all practical purposes, they're playing with house money. But it would be nice—and a little unexpected given how well-received and fun the first installment was—if Despicable Me 2 didn't feel like an early dry run of the same movie.
This one is still delicious candy for the kiddos, but the rest of us deserve a really adventurous Despicable Me sequel. Reason to hold out hope for part three, perhaps.