'Despicable Me' still a hit second time around

Photo provided by Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment -- From left, Gru (Steve Carell) has a big talk with Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Agnes (Elsie Fisher) and Edith (Dana Gaier) in Despicable Me 2. The movie will be shown Friday night at Liberty Lagoon.
Photo provided by Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment -- From left, Gru (Steve Carell) has a big talk with Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Agnes (Elsie Fisher) and Edith (Dana Gaier) in Despicable Me 2. The movie will be shown Friday night at Liberty Lagoon.

Reviewer’s Rating: ★ ★ ★1/2

Gru, the bad guy turned sweetheart in 2010’s computer-animated summer hit, Despicable Me, returns in a sequel that holds up surprisingly well. This is one franchise that hasn’t run out of gas.

Steve Carell again speaks the part of the hulking, Eastern European-accented, bald, beak-nosed inventor. His little yellow minions, those hundreds of helpers who still fill his subterranean former factory of evil in the suburbs, are back, too. Their minion gibberish is just slightly less amusing.

Having given up the evil life, Gru isn’t having much luck with becoming a legitimate businessman. Nonetheless, he loves his new role as parent to three orphaned girls.

And what a sweet ex-villain Gru is. So sweet that he’ll dress up as a not-so-convincing fairy godmother for youngest girl Agnes’ birthday. But Gru’s old partner in crime, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), misses the plotting and execution of wicked plans that have international consequences. Dr. Nefario misses evil so much that he leaves Gru’s employment and accepts an evil scientist position elsewhere.

Slapstick being a big part of Despicable Me, Despicable Me 2 offers more sight gags. A new character who looks and acts very much like former Saturday Night Live principal, Kristen Wiig, exploits the movie’s physical comedy potential to maximum effect when she tasers and captures Gru. Wiig provides the voice for secret agent Lucy Wilde, a rather nerdy spy who easily, efficiently abducts Gru for the purpose of recruiting him to work for the Anti-Villain League.

Gru reluctantly agrees to help. While he and Lucy follow their leads at Paradise Mall, something unexpected develops between them: romance. Gru’s girls — Agnes (Elsie Fisher), Edith (Dana Gaier) and oldest sister Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) — all want their adoptive father to find a girlfriend, something he steadfastly resists.

Unfortunately for Gru, his history with the opposite sex is, no surprise, tortured. Let’s just say he was not popular at school. All of this leads to some poignant, but still funny, moments that give the Despicable Me movies dimension beyond the call of kids-movie duty.

The entertaining new characters in Despicable Me 2 include El Macho, the supersized owner of Salsa & Salsa, a Mexican restaurant at Paradise Mall. El Macho’s florid Latin dance moves make the ladies swoon. Benjamin Bratt is the funny voice for this over-the-top, room-filling personality. And the great British comic actor Steve Coogan speaks the role of the likewise large Silas Ramsbottom, Lucy’s stuffy boss at the Anti-Villain League.

The original Despicable Me having been an international hit, earning more than $540 million, the new film wisely reassembled the creative team behind it, including directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin and writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio. Their talent and active imagination makes the sequel nearly as fresh and fun as the original.

The movie also makes especially good use of its soundtrack. Grammy-winning rapper, singer and producer Pharrell Williams performs multiple songs. A few well-placed classics show up, too, including Barry White’s “Lover’s Theme” and, becoming music for minions, Bob Marley’s “Jamming.”