Despicable Me 2

What makes a cartoon movie work? What about a cartoon-movie sequel? Obviously, there’s a difference between timeless archetypes and tepid reworks of all the stuff today’s filmmakers cherished before they grew up. But by this point in movie history, the rehashing itself starts to seem like an archetype. Especially with those movies designed to channel or cater to the inner kid.

Despicable Me 2 does, at least, presume some pre-existing awareness of Despicable Me, as is the inarguable prerogative of any market-saturating animated franchise nowadays, but it’s not like you’ll have any trouble figuring out what’s going on. Or, if you do, it surely won’t be on account of having missed the first one. Less inspired than its predecessor, which wasn’t entirely inspired to begin with, and not exactly a necessary sequel, this madcap caper nonetheless makes for a righteously looney ’toon.

The reformed Euro-supervillain Gru (voiced again by Steve Carell) has retired to rear his three adopted daughters and develop a line of jams and jellies. His resident gadgeteer, Dr. Nefario (voiced by Russell Brand), has had a better offer—“more evil, full dental”—and Gru can’t begrudge the doctor’s departure, for the shared glory days of grand malfeasance seem by now long behind them. Then, Gru finds himself recruited by a spazzy special agent (voiced by Kristen Wiig) to thwart an incognito rival. As it happens, this heretofore unknown opponent’s dastardly scheme involves, among other nutso ideas, morphing Gru’s multitude of cute yellow minions into pernicious purple monsters.

The minions, those rambunctious little globules of mutual aggression and improbable resiliency, should already be quite familiar, if only from this movie’s relentless merchandising. Collectively, they’re the Despicable Me mascot, and the next sequel is specifically about them. You might say the monsters were created already. So their dubious metamorphosis is a relatively organic turn of plot—or, at least as much so as you can hope for nowadays from a market-saturating animated franchise.

With writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul supplying a deep grab bag of subplots, directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud mostly just stay busy romping around within their gleefully designed environments. Broad, brightly colored slapstick ensues, with some favorably Muppet-ish mayhem; the most logical thing about this film is its use of 3-D as an extension of cartoonishly exaggerated proportions. Coffin and Renaud seem genuinely enthused by the delicate and nearly lost art of bringing off a movie that even finds itself increasingly ridiculous.

Some nice touches are in evidence, like a sweet and very funny good-mood montage of Gru, subsequently annulled by a newly depressed reprise—it’s a good buildup, and even better for its later breakdown. Or a fellow supervillain called El Macho, remembered with reverence by Gru and presumed to have died in the most macho way possible—riding a shark into an active volcano while wearing a vest full of TNT. As the minions’ unending shtick also rather strenuously implies, silliness is a supreme value here, and sometimes the movie just has it, without even seeming to try.

Still, the overall construct has a strange and unpredictable effect on performances: As in the first Despicable Me, Carell’s almost better this way, with his complacent mugging fully abstracted by animation, whereas here we start to miss Wiig’s actual face. Brand, for his part, might as well be someone else, someone completely unknown. Other voice talents include those of Steve Coogan, more or less squandered, as he often is by American films; Ken Jeong, also at a disadvantage with physical comedy that’s illustrated and therefore not his own; and Benjamin Bratt, making good strides, at least, to get beyond his humorless comfort zone.

So, the subplot grab bag, being innately episodic and somewhat suggestive of classic Saturday-morning cartoons, also is a mixed bag. Disjointedness isn’t necessarily a disadvantage to cartoon-movie humor, except when your audience comes to expect a whole and coherent movie. But, of course, this is a not exactly a necessary sequel, rather a market-saturating animated franchise, so why would they expect that?