The pressures of being a single father. The realization that despite everything, your kids still long for a mom. The difficulties of getting a teenage daughter's attention between texting and a boy. The boy. The treacherous emotional terrain of middle-age dating. The challenges of staying relevant in the workplace.
This is "Despicable Me 2"?
It is. The softhearted villain Gru, so disarmingly voiced by Steve Carell, has gotten a lot more than he bargained for after 2010's "Despicable Me." Adopting three adorable orphans brought a slew of issues into his life and those modern problems frame the sequel.
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What a refreshing twist. Also a risk — fans of big hits have expectations. But I think the filmmakers were smart to try turning the animated kid-flick formula on its head and go for the adults as much as the kids.
Tiny, top-knotted Agnes (Elsie Kate Fisher), pink punker Edith (Dana Gaier) and teenage Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), who first wrapped the world's No. 1 bad guy around their sticky little fingers in 2010's "Despicable Me," have taken over Gru's life.
The daddy gig barely leaves time for villainy. A birthday party for Agnes, which gives the 3-D animated film its first big visual pop, makes clear just how good Gru's gone.
All the sweetness has Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) plotting new ways to draw Gru back into more cynical schemes. It's hard not to side with Nefario at least a bit on this one.
But co-directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud and screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul — the creative team behind the first — are intent on testing new waters. Sometimes choppy ones that occasionally get the better of them.
For the small set, the filmmakers have thrown in some kid crises that touch on blended families and growing up. But mostly they rely on Minion mayhem and a few other tricks to keep the squirm factor in check. The toothy little yellow optimists forever at Gru's beck and call are about to be compromised in ways that will rock his world. And probably launch a new toy line.
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Villainy, just not Gru's, still lurks around every corner, and it's set once again to the hypnotically dark beat of hip-hop maestro Pharrell Williams.
We get a hint of the bad in the opening sequence. A super-secret research lab is lifted right off the polar ice cap where it was hiding. In the wrong hands, the stuff being tested there could do terrible things. So of course it is now in the wrong hands — but whose?
Answering that question is why the Anti-Villain League, headed by Silas Ramsbottom (Steve Coogan) — whose name sends the Minions into laughing fits that rival the effect of the first film's Fart Ray Gun — has summoned Gru. Well technically he's had agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig) kidnap him. Turning Lucy and Gru into an undercover team sets up the film's major conflicts.
Their on-the-case one-upmanship is electrifying — or at least Lucy's lipstick Taser is — and their chemistry is slightly terrifying. All the cool gadgets, guns and cars that go along with the job allow the animators to go off the rails with them.
The super-secret stuff is really just the tease. What makes for such fun is its gross transformative powers. Traces have been found in Paradise Mall, where Eduardo Perez (Benjamin Bratt) operates a Mexican restaurant. Eduardo reminds Gru of an old nemesis and Margo is smitten with Eduardo's teenage son. It's a coin toss which is more nerve-wracking.
Even with slightly heavier issues, like its predecessor, "Despicable Me 2" is light on its feet, visually inventive and very fast with the repartee. It requires actors who can pull off the many peppery lines at warp speed and in that the film is lucky with its voice cast.
Carell is impossible not to like with his Transylvania accent shifting between bravado and acquiescence. It fits the film's clean yet slightly sinister animated look, epitomized by Gru's bald head, prominent eyebrows, long pointed nose and that irrepressible grin. Wiig is a good opposite number for Carell, assertive without becoming a caricature of extremes, which is an easy trap when voicing a cartoon.
With little girls in the house, I guess it was only a matter of time until the idea of finding a girlfriend for dad would arise. As amusing as it is to watch them work on a dating profile for Gru, the story gets too squishy when it goes too mushy. The movie is on far more solid ground when the goop is unleashed. For a while the entire despicable world goes completely crazy and the animation matches the insanity marvelously.
As delightfully different as all the relevancy is, "Despicable Me 2" suffers slightly from not being as despicable as it could — or probably should — be. Perhaps just another blast or two from the Fart Ray Gun would have been all the despicable we'd have needed.
'Despicable Me 2'
MPAA rating: PG for rude humor and mild action
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: In general release
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