Saturday, July 20, 2013

Despicable Me 2

At some point – probably while it was still playing in cinemas – someone took a look at the returns for ‘Despicable Me’ and gave the sequel the green light. At some point – probably after attending a kids’ party – someone sent out a one-word memo: “minions”. And thus ‘Despicable Me 2’ could easily have been “The Minion Show”. To certain degree, the epithet’s fair: the loony yellow thingies enjoy waaaaaaay more screen time in this outing, and they play a much greater part in the plot, but directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud have a couple of aces up their sleeve to ensure that the minions don’t overwhelm.

The first is a beautiful reversal of Gru (Steve Carell)’s character arc from the original. As the film opens, he’s abandoned his crooked ways and has put Dr Nefario (Russell Brand) and the minions to work producing jams and preserves as part of a – shock, horror! – legitimate business plan; Nefario in particular is so incensed by legitimacy that he accepts a job offer elsewhere. Gru’s also being an attentive father to Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher). So far, so honest. Then he’s recruited – much against his will – by Silas Ramsbottom (Steve Coogan) of the Anti-Villain League to unmask a super-villain operating undercover from a mall. The crim-to-nice-guy transition of ‘Despicable Me’ is effectively flipped on its head as Gru has to re-embrace his old ways in order to get the job done.

The second is Kristen Wiig. After memorable work in an essentially nothing role (Miss Hattie) first time round, Coffin and Renaud reward her with the showier and infinitely more flamboyant role of Lucy Wilde, the agent despatched by Ramsbottom to first contact, and then work with, Gru. Lucy is wonderfully demented character and Wiig delivers in fine style.

All sharp suits, lipstick tazers and boundless energy, Lucy gives this film something absent from its predecessor: a romantic subplot. Where ‘Despicable Me’ traded on flashbacks to the dismissive attitude of Gru’s mother, the sequel depicts a playground humiliation that’s left Gru perennially nervous around women. His growing attraction to Lucy is frustrated by his well-meaning but annoying neighbour Jillian (Nasim Pedrad)’s attempts to set him up with her gum-chewing airhead friend Shannon (Kristen Schaal), and paralleled by Margo’s tentative romance with cocky teenager Antonio (Moises Arias), son of Mexican restaurant owner Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt) – one of Ramsbottom and Lucy’s chief suspects.

And on top of all this, someone or something is kidnapping the minions.

Plenty of material from ‘Despicable Me’ is revisited: the gloating villain in whom the heart of a lonely child still beats (the blithely indifferent mother is replaced by the matchmaking neighbour); Gru’s spectacularly non-conformist parenting skills (his attitude to his charges is a little less Dickensian this time around, but some of the entertainments he lays on for Agnes’s birthday party veer towards the don’t-try-this-at-home); Nefario’s frustration at Gru being sidetracked from proper old-fashioned villainy; Gru’s attempts to infiltrate the fortress-like lair of an even more devious villain than himself. But it’s all done so deftly, and woven around the development of all of its protagonists, that it never seems like ‘Despicable Me 2’ is a retread; indeed, it’s demonstrates the kind of organic progression from the first film that far more sequels should aspire to. 

Moreover, it’s funnier, more inventive and boasts far more appealing animation. Lucy’s kidnapping of Gru and her journey to Ramsbottom’s undersea HQ melds ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ and ‘Danger: Diabolik’ in fine, deadpan style. Eduardo’s hacienda recalls Sanchez’s Mexican hideaway in ‘Licence to Kill’, but with tacos instead of cocaine. The humour ranges from surprisingly subtle to utterly off-the-wall, reaching its most demented in a sequence where Gru, equipped with a Geiger counter type belt, prowls a suspect’s boutique, thrusting his crotch ‘Sexy and I Know It’ stylee at every object or surface that might yield a reading.

Pathos balances the humour nicely, as in Gru’s abrupt transition from Mr Positive when he senses he might have a chance with Lucy, to Mr Positively Depressed on thinking he might never see her again. If Margo’s brief but potent crush on Antonio will probably strike a chord with kids of a certain age group, Gru’s rollercoaster of emotions will almost certainly leave their parents nodding in sympathetic recognition. Elsewhere, Gru’s frustration at chickening out on making a phone call culminates in him pulling a flamethrower at the poor old instrument of telephonic communication: a poignant/slightly psychotic reminder that you’re never too old to get the jitters about asking somebody out immediately segues into pratfall heavy comedy as the minion equivalent of the fire brigade turn up to tackle the blaze.

Yup, it all comes back to the minions. They even hijack the end credits. And why not? They’re like a Greek chorus of cuteness, idiocy and abject incompetence wrapped up in one rib-tickling bundle. A yellow bundle.

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