There’s something you should know before we get started. I liked the original Despicable Me quite a lot, but nowhere near as much as my girlfriend does. The fact that she is currently on her second Despicable Me message tone should tell you all you need to know about that. Accordingly, while it is held in high esteem in my household and was one of the more unexpected successes in recent animation, I don’t even consider it the best animation of 2010 (Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon are superior).
Enter the sequel. Gru is (spoiler alert) now on the straight and narrow and turning his talents (and minions) to the manufacture of jams and jellies. Meanwhile, his ‘girls’ and his neighbours are encouraging him to go dating. Gru seems more concerned with grappling with parenthood and fruit than with women, but his life gets disrupted when, without spoiling too much, he ends up on the other side of the super-villain/forces of good battle.
On the plus side, the trailers that have been infiltrating my cinematic experience for what seems like aeons haven’t told us all this already, being instead dominated by the unlikely stars of the original, Gru’s minions (a standalone Minions film is in the works). Disappointingly though, the trailers turned out to be entire scenes from the film, leaving regular cinema-goers like myself unexpectedly disengaged at a couple of points simply because you have already seen what’s unfolding at least 25 times before.
That’s one of my only criticisms though and, fortunately, the trailer scenes were far from the ‘best bits’. Unlike many sequels, the charm of the original is ever-present here and the quality is consistently high. Agnes is one of the most impossibly cute characters in cinematic history and melted even my usually cold, dark heart. Her siblings, likewise, provide their own attributes to give some variety to the child characters. This is in fact one of the more refreshing aspects of Despicable Me 2: there is more development of the contrasts between Fairy Princess party-loving Agnes and teenager Margo, experiencing the flourishing sentiment and excitement of adolescence. And we have Edith, an all-action tomboy who rejects the classic ‘girly’ stereotype, criminally underused because Kristen Wiig’s secret agent Lucy is covering the action girl side nicely.
For all the plaudits of Brave’s ‘alternative’ princess, this shows a more rounded view of the different identities modern girls can take. Lucy neatly combines the three siblings’ features: at times innocent, at times arse-kicking, at times emotionally vulnerable. It’s nice to see a female lead who isn’t simply a masculine action hero or just a vulnerable, soft-centred romantic, but both. Beyond the females, there is an excellent supporting cast and enough variety to give everyone in the audience something to relate to.
As good as the characters are though, it’s the humour that sets the film apart. Despicable Me 2 is not only funnier than its predecessor, it’s funnier than most of the comedies I’ve watched recently (yes, The Campaign, you especially). It doesn’t have the originality of the first film of course, so there is less reliance on gags around Gru’s villainy. Thankfully, the creators have chosen to find comedy from a wider range of sources rather than mining the same resource to the point of overuse.
There are jokes for all ages too, with knowing nods to parents and a plethora of references alongside more slapstick and child-centric gags. Universal Pictures/Illumination Entertainment seem to be forging a path here amongst titans like Pixar and Dreamworks, thanks largely to their ability to do what those two do so well: create films that are funny enough to make the entire audience laugh and touch us emotionally too.
A quick note on the visuals. I watched the 2D version (obviously) so I have no idea if the 3D is any good, but there is a definite step up in quality from the first. Some of the final scenes in particular are absolutely gorgeous and there is an attention to detail reminiscent of Pixar, particularly in terms of the nods to other films. That said, there is nothing quite at the level of the first’s Lehman Brothers gag or the priceless masterpieces hidden away in the girls’ bedrooms and I want to manage expectations: this isn’t as good as Pixar at their best. Having had the trailer for Planes before watching this though, I think it’s safe to say hopes are pinned on Monster’s University providing a return to previous standards (and, dare I say it, artistic integrity over merchandising sales).
More than anything, going to the cinema to watch this film was an enjoyable experience. Sometimes you are reminded why we go to the cinema in the first place. Whether it’s an all-out action film like The Raid or a film that genuinely caters to the entire family like this, we pay to go to the cinema to be entertained and have a good time. Yes, the prices are steep. Yes, other people are really annoying. Yes, Odeon Premiere seats are an appalling example of capitalist greed. But when a film is this good, all that gets forgotten. I recommend catching this on the big screen as watching it with a backdrop of little kids’ laughter enhances the experience (kudos to the little girl behind me who kept shouting ‘NEE-NAW-NEE-NAW’ at inappropriate points for making us chuckle too).
Charming, funny and pretty nice to look at, I walked out of Despicable Me 2 with a big smile on my face that stayed there for a long time. Frankly, if you go to watch this film at the cinema and don’t walk out smiling, I’d get to the nearest hospital and ask them to check your vital signs. You might be dead. Even a super-villain like Gru was charmed by it all, for God’s sake.