With a skeletal narrative and more tepid one-off gags than you can count, “Despicable Me 2” would be indistinguishable from your average Nickelodeon cartoon episode if not for its $76 million budget, A-list voice cast, and hour-and-a-half running time. The first two components of that list are saving graces—at least the images are top-of-the-line and the characters are embodied with sonant verve—but the film’s feature length is a major negative, as the material is simply too thin to sustain it. What would have made for a perfectly diverting 22 minutes of kids’ television is painfully stretched out for the sake of charging $40 a family, or more if you submit to the unnecessary 3-D version.
The film’s funniest bit of humor comes before the elementary mystery plot is initiated, when we learn that now-reformed super-villain Gru (Easten-European accented voice of Steve Carrell) has begun a new career as a jam and jelly manufacturer, deploying his army of minions (the ever-popular face of this franchise) to work on the factory line. It’s a clever little invention by writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, perhaps a subtle nod to ventures like L.A.’s wonderful Homeboy Bakery, which provides former gang members jobs. And while there are a handful of similarly ingenious nuggets throughout the film, most of the small jokes don’t land. The bigger gags, like an awful date between Gru and a hideous woman (nice lesson for kids, Hollywood), have an even lower success-rate.
So without enough to laugh at, we’re left to try to mine some joy out of that elementary mystery plot, which proves a fruitless task. Failing to make headway with his canned preserves, Gru agrees to put his knowledge of the criminal underworld to good use in helping Anti-Villain League agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig) find the bad guy who recently stole a serum that can turn any living being—from bunnies to, predictably, minions—into super-sized killers. The AVL traces the serum to a shopping mall, so the pair stand around posing as employees of a cupcake store, waiting for clues to appear. Gru is certain that the culprit is Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt), the proprietor of a Mexican restaurant—a character designed for the ever-proliferating Latino audience for family films, no doubt—who he believes is an assumed-to-be-dead super-villain called El Macho. There’s really no suspense over this, as the film barely even introduces another suspect; the reveals on “Scooby Doo” were ten times more exciting than the ultimate one here.
As you’d expect, this all ends in a big action set-piece, which is beautifully animated (the look of ocean-water is particularly unique) but not especially exciting given how little emotional investment we have in its outcome. More than any of the film’s inadequacies in the comedy department, the problem with “Despicable Me 2” is that there’s just no reason to care. Even the sorta-sweet dynamic between Gru and his three adoptive daughters from the first film feels stale this time, reduced to sitcom clichés, as in the scene where Gru finds out eldest Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) has a boyfriend. Sure, viewers under age 10 will be plenty entertained, but even they would have preferred watching the movie on Nickelodeon. And given it will probably end up airing on the cable channel one day, why not make them wait, to spare yourself the cost and inconvenience of a trip to the megaplex?