“Despicable Me 2” star Steve Carell brought Maxwell Smart to the big screen in 2008’s “Get Smart” – to rather unmemorable effect, incidentally – so let’s paraphrase that iconic character’s most famous line: Would you believe this animated sequel is a more satisfying summer film than “Iron Man 3,” “Man of Steel” and almost every other blockbuster released so far this season?
In a weak summer for family-friendly fare – yes, there is “Monsters University” – “Despicable Me 2” qualifies as a true crossover success, a film that should prove as pleasing to both 4- and 40-year-olds.
It is the follow-up to one of 2010’s most successful pictures, which introduced the Bond villain-esque Gru (Carell), a criminal mastermind who adopts three adorable girls – bespectacled Margo, ninja wannabe Edith and cute-as-a-button Agnes – and has a plan to steal the moon.
“Despicable Me” also introduced Gru’s minions, little, yellow, gibberish spouting, Twinkie-like helpers that rank among recent animated cinema’s most clever and humorous creations. (A spinoff is on its way in 2014.)
In the end, Gru changed his ways, and as “Despicable Me 2” opens, he is a doting father, one who is not above dressing as a fairy princess for his youngest daughter’s birthday. Sure, he is painfully single, and misses the thrill of villainy, but Gru is happy in his new suburban bubble.
But when he is approached – OK, kidnapped – by the top-secret Anti-Villain League, Gru returns to work, this time with the good guys. He is soon partnered with the wacky, karate-chopping Lucy (Kristen Wiig), sent undercover as a mall shopkeep.
While on mall duty, a rotund Mexican restaurant owner known as Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt) introduces himself, and Gru finds him vaguely familiar. Meanwhile, his trusted colleague Dr. Nefario finds a new job, Margo falls in love and Gru starts to fall for Lucy.
It all leads to some mutant minions, a villain known as El Macho and lots and lots of red jam. The kids will love every minute of it, even if the mutant minions offer a few scares.
Admittedly, the Gru saga does not stand for much, lacking the emotional oomph of Pixar’s best or the creative force of a “Frankenweenie” or Disney’s old-school finest. But the “Despicable” saga is not as obnoxious as any “Shrek” installment, and offers few reasons for parents to feel uneasy.
The first movie’s directors, Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, are back at the helm, and they’ve crafted a tidy 98-minute sequel. Like “Despicable Me,” the film is a 3-D affair; I would call the 3-D solid but inessential.
For Carell, the film is a certified winner after a rough patch. Following his first outing as Gru, Carell chose one winner, the Chris Schobert Guilty Pleasure Favorite “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” the so-so “Hope Springs” and several duds: “Dinner for Schmucks,” “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” and “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.”
As Gru, Carell is back to his likable best, creating a character who is sweet, funny and just over-the-top enough to serve as a believable ex-villain. Meanwhile, the endlessly lovable Wiig is perfectly cast as Lucy, Russell Brand nicely underplays Dr. Nefario, and Bratt is a surprisingly full-throated treat as Eduardo.
One caveat, however. Al Pacino was originally set to voice Eduardo, and the concept of Tony Montana voicing a character called El Macho feels like some kind of bizarre burst of genius. Sadly, “creative differences” led Pacino to jump ship.
The fact Pacino stayed with Adam Sandler’s “Jack and Jill” but bailed on “Despicable Me 2” says Gru is not getting the respect he deserves from the animated establishment. But this film’s sure-to-be-robust grosses should more than make up for it. Perhaps Robert De Niro is available for “Despicable Me 3.”
Despicable Me 2
With the voices of: Steve Carell, Miranda Cosgrove, Kristen Wiig, Benjamin Bratt
Directors: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud
Running time: 98 minutes
Rating: PG for rude humor and mild action.
The Lowdown: Former super-villain Gru is recruited to find a criminal mastermind, and might just find love in the process.