An unexpected toon hit back in 2010, “Despicable Me” capitalized on the idea that the hole in a would-be villain’s heart might be perfectly filled by three adorable orphan girls. Bound to exceed its predecessor at the box office, Universal/Illumination’s endearing if slightly less inspired sequel finds the still-surly Gru just lonely enough to accommodate a love interest — the missing ingredient in this unconventional family portrait. After reluctantly admitting that he made a second-rate baddie at best, Steve Carell’s overcompensating character gets a chance to prove himself a first-class hero, providing ample opportunity for comic support from his Minions.
While not quite as charming or unique as the original, “Despicable Me 2” comes awfully close, extending co-directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin’s delightfully silly sensibility to a bit larger universe. The story picks up shortly after it left off, with Gru repurposing his arsenal of fearsome inventions to keep his three adopted daughters entertained. Meanwhile, his highly adaptable crew of gibberish-spouting Minions do double duty, alternating between glorified babysitters and elbow grease on Gru’s latest enterprise: developing a line of delicious jellies and jams.
The setup’s good for a few jokes — and writing duo Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio keep ’em coming at a steady pace — but it’s clear that much of this reformed villain’s talents are going untapped. That’s where secret agent Lucy Wilde comes in. Voiced by Kristen Wiig but behaving like an elastic version of that googly eyed pitch gal from the Progressive Insurance spots, Lucy represents an organization called the Anti-Villain League that seeks to recruit Gru.
Tall and gangly with a massive schnoz, Lucy is not just Gru’s equal in nearly every way, but obviously his romantic match as well — a position the script not-so-subtly suggests is vacant as early as Gru’s first scene. In fact, while the pic goes out of its way to concoct an elaborate plot involving a top-secret transmutation serum stolen from the Arctic Circle and stashed somewhere in a shopping mall, the unnecessarily complicated scenario clearly serves to bring this odd couple together.
This storyline also cleverly satisfies a second objective: devising an expanded role for the Minions without letting the little yellow scene-stealers completely abscond with the show. After all, the Minions have a feature of their own in the works (a fact the film rather obnoxiously reminds during an end-credits “audition” sequence that severely tests one’s tolerance for these overly slapsticky buggers), which no doubt explains the modest attempts to distinguish between their personalities here.
Whereas so much CG animation loses sight of — or in some cases, outright rejects — its connection to the classic hand-drawn cartoon tradition, the Illumination Mac Guff-made “Despicable Me” franchise fully embraces the loony design, zany humor and impossible physics pioneered by Hanna-Barbera, Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones. The result may lack DreamWorks’ visual wow factor or the rich emotional connection Pixar consistently achieves, but it never forgets to have fun, putting amusement as its highest priority.
Renaud and Coffin fully commit to this oddly old-fashioned agenda, presenting a world where a top-heavy hunchback on spindly little legs can be twisted into pretzels when the situation demands. Their playful attitude extends to the voices, which account for much of the pic’s appeal. That certainly goes for the Minions (whom the helmers perform themselves, adding a hilarious form of nonsense-singing to their repertoire), and for such new additions as Ken Jeong, Steve Coogan and Benjamin Bratt.
Bratt reportedly came aboard as a last-minute substitution for Al Pacino, though you’d never guess he wasn’t the filmmakers’ first choice for the role of El Macho, the swarthy lead suspect in Gru’s undercover investigation into the theft of the serum. Like Gru, El Macho is a former villain whom fatherhood has forced into a lower-profile existence — in his case, managing a Mexican restaurant at the mall.
Meanwhile with Gru distracted by his own budding romance, eldest daughter Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) falls for El Macho’s hipster son, Antonio (Moises Arias), severely compromising Gru’s objectivity in the case. Parents who’ve sat through enough recent studio toons will surely appreciate the way “Despicable Me 2” divides its allegiance evenly between the grown-up and kid characters, rather than pandering to the youngsters.
Taking advantage of the 3D format and Pharrell Williams’ funky theme, the creative team keeps things moving, although certain story threads remain unresolved amid the toon’s rush to entertain. Along the way, the pic ditches the mall location and abandons Gru and Lucy’s cupcake-making cover stories, (correctly) assuming that Minion cover versions of “I Swear” and “YMCA” will excuse the fact the endeavor lacks a proper ending.