The most successful animated movie of the last decade that wasn’t made by Pixar and didn’t star a grumpy green ogre, Despicable Me strikes a delicate balance between adorable (those parentless tykes) and deplorable (the delightfully black-hearted dastard who took them in). A sequel was a foregone conclusion, but how did those responsible lose sight of what made the original special? In the most basic sense, Despicable Me 2 reproduces its predecessor’s winning formula. Here again is Steve Carell, adopting an exaggerated Eastern European accent to voice Gru, a Dr. Evil-ish arch-scoundrel. Also back are his moppet wards—a trio of orphan girls, including the little one with the yen for unicorns—and his absent-minded tech support (Russell Brand, a scientist less mad than loopy). And, naturally, the new film is filthy with minions, those nattering, subhuman sidekicks, taking a break from selling auto insurance and pancakes. What’s missing—and this was the crucial component of part one—is a little sour to undercut the sweet. Like its protagonist, a bad guy gone boringly good, Despicable Me 2 has no edge. It’s fatally nice and insufficiently naughty.
Having given up a life of grand larceny to focus on fatherhood, stay-at-home supervillain Carell dotes on his daughters and dodges the affections of the local soccer moms. His heart, ballooned three sizes since the events of the first film, just isn’t in the crime game anymore. But when a new megalomaniac starts plucking up research facilities with a giant magnet, Carell comes out of retirement to track him down. This requires relocating to a suburban shopping mall—an appropriate central setting for such a domesticated sequel—where he goes undercover to catch the incognito baddie. Half-assing its whodunit conceit, the film produces only two suspects. That’s because its main focus isn’t mystery but romance: Carell gradually swoons for his klutzy do-gooder partner (Kristen Wiig), a rookie agent of the Anti-Villain League. Meanwhile, his oldest daughter (Miranda Cosgrove) makes eyes with a preteen Latin lothario (Moises Arias). Love is in the air, poisoning the atmosphere of this once-irreverent franchise, like a toxic emission from one of Brand’s patented fart guns.
With Carell busy falling head over heels, slapstick duties land squarely on the diminutive shoulders of the minions, whose giddy gibberish and Three Stooges antics are still pitched at toddlers of all ages. The movie’s one inspired idea, lifted from Gremlins, is to transform these glorified plush dolls into slobbering, maniacal monsters—a development that lends Despicable Me 2 a brief breadth of anarchy. Alas, even this twist feels sanitized, as the mutated mascots are unleashed on a deserted island, not in a place where they could get into any real mischief. (Perhaps the creators are saving the best pratfalls for next year’s cash-grab spinoff, Minions.) Should this series plod on, here’s hoping it goes back to the laboratory for a retool. Even if Gru can’t revert to his old Lex Luthorian habits, there’s got to be a way to slow his descent into sitcom cuddliness. He shouldn’t be despicable in the way According To Jim is.