Claudia Puig, USA TODAY
There isn't much to warm up to in Despicable Me 2 (* * out of four; rated PG; opening Wednesday nationwide).
This shallow sequel to 2010's much cleverer Despicable Me - the 10th-biggest animated movie in U.S. history - seems to be merely going through the motions.
The endearing (and still barely intelligible) yellow minions are back, as is the formerly evil Gru (Steve Carell), who is now a loving dad. In the first movie, he was plotting to steal the moon. But his three adopted daughters made him want to be a better man. A reformed bad guy, he's also a little bit boring. He's still cranky, however, when it comes to dating. (In a flashback, we get a vague idea why.) His girls long for a mother and encourage him to try online romance. Haven't we seen enough dating disaster montages in movies to last a lifetime?
Gru is contacted by the Anti-Villain League (AVL), which is headed by Silas Ramsbottom (Steve Coogan), to track down a mysterious baddie who has stolen a top-secret lab and its monster-fashioning serum. A colleague in the form of ultra-enthusiastic AVL agent Lucy (Kristen Wiig) is called in to assist Gru. It's not hard to deduce that a romance will ensue. Wiig's talent for offbeat characters seems wasted here, in a conventional role that just calls for peppy eagerness. Slapstick high jinks are plentiful, though never particularly funny.
Having given up a life of evildoing, Gru is busy overseeing a jam-making business, with his chattery minions as assembly workers and Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) as the scientist concocting flavors. But the final project is foul-tasting.
So when Gru is offered the undercover assignment, he's hardly keen to preserve his jam production. Of course, it helps that he just might save the world in the process.
As part of his cover, he opens a cupcake shop in a mall. Soon, he nurses suspicions about Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt), the friendly owner of a Mexican restaurant nearby. Gru is certain that the gregarious restaurateur is actually the malevolent El Macho, who allegedly died while riding a shark into the mouth of a volcano. Bratt is the only new character who seems to be giving his part his vocal all.
Gru's girls are appealing characters, while the minions are clearly the ones that have the greatest appeal for those under 10. Youngest daughter Agnes (Elsie Kate Fisher) is particularly adorable. There's a short-lived romance between Gru's oldest daughter, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), and Antonio (Moises Arias), Eduardo's son. Gru takes an immediate dislike to Antonio. Because the screenwriters don't bother to develop the characters of either father or son, Gru's reactions seem borderline racist.
With its predecessor having made a whopping $540 million globally, it's no wonder that Universal saw fit to order a sequel. But it's not enough just to trot out legions of minions and cobble together a plot. Audiences deserve more imagination and inventiveness than this wan recycling.