When last we saw Steve Carell’s animated villain Gru in his 2010 debut, he was raining his Blofeld-meets-Charles Addams misanthropic diabolism everywhere, stealing the moon, and getting his heart stolen in turn by three little orphan girls. Now, the ads tell us, Gru and his amusing, indeterminately borschty accent are back, bent on delivering more of that old megalomania. Don’t you believe it.
The animators and writers behind “Despicable Me 2” might have done well to call their movie something else — “Gru Out of Darkness,” maybe? — given the near total lack of despicability the reformed baddie displays here. (He lets his mutant pooch do its business on the neighbors’ shrubbery, and that’s about as dastardly as it gets.) The scope of the ’toon espionage-adventure goings-on is surprisingly limited, mostly confined to a mall, of all places. But the filmmakers so clearly love working on these characters — Gru’s yellow, mutant-elf Minions in particular — their creative joy is infectious. The sequel might not be all that warped, but it’s plenty funny nevertheless.
Here again, the story ultimately is about Gru finding love. That’s clear not long after he’s shanghaied by Anti-Villain League operative Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig, shifting from an unrelated first-installment role to one that’s an effective outlet for her signature halting awkwardness). Sure, Gru may have converted his mega-lair to jelly production, but the AVL’s boss (Steve Coogan) believes Gru’s old instincts can help crack the ominous theft of a top-secret mutation serum. Gru and Lucy’s mission improbably focuses on the local galleria, where they clumsily investigate barrel-gutted Mexican restaurant proprietor Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt). All the while, though, what our dating-averse “hero” is really uncovering is that Lucy is his soul mate.
Along the way, the laughs run the gamut from random to spot-on to, yes, artistically refined. Anything goes with the doodly Minions, of course, whose hijinks include Jekyll-and-Hyde transformations and end-credit silliness offering the best 3-D in the movie. And there’s a shades-of-Clouseau vibe to the mix of Carell’s nonsensical voice work and Gru’s bumbling sleuthing. But some standout bits are pure animation: a recurring gag about a nacho sombrero, and wordless, twinned montages of Gru giddy with love and miserable with heartbreak.
There are also some touching moments between Gru and his girls that can make this feel like a surprisingly heartfelt effort for a movie capped off by a jelly-blaster assault. (Turns out that maybe the things aren’t such misfit toys after all, “Rudolph” fans.) It’s not animated sentiment quite on a level with “Up,” but it feels true to life all the same. And anything but despicable.Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.