If too many animated sequels these days are keen to coast lazily on the successes of the original film, Despicable Me 2 can certainly not be criticised for doing so. While Gru's latest adventure might lack a wholly satisfying villain, it's a rare animated follow-up that makes a concerted effort to develop its characters beyond the established caricature, and is in this stead a fuzzy, heart-warming film sure to satisfy fans of the first. Continuing where the previous film left us, Gru (Steve Carrell) is now a retired supervillain, living a life of (relative) domestic bliss with his three adopted daughters, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher), while running a jelly-and-jam making company to make ends meet. However, this idyllic setting is soon usurped once Luce Wilde (Kristin Wiig), an agent of the Anti-Villain League, shows up on his doorstep, requiring his help with an urgent matter of national security. Someone has been using a giant electromagnet to cause chaos across the world, and Gru, having been hastily sworn in as an AVL consultant, suspects that it might be Eduardo Perez (Benjamin Bratt), the owner of the local Mexican restaurant who bears an uncanny likeness to celebrated supervillain El Macho, long presumed dead.
Much of the joy of Despicable Me 2 isn't in seeing how Gru and co. put evil in its place, but the opening sections in which we get to observe the former Big Bad settling into his quaint new life. Fatherhood has presented Gru with a series of challenges seemingly no less taxing than plotting to steal the moon, and directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, alongside scribes Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (all of whom are returning from the first film), convey this in a manner both uproariously funny and fundamentally sweet. So strong is the character work and visual gaggery that it's easy to forget this is supposed to be a film with an antagonist. Just as Scrat steals every scene he's in of the Ice Age franchise, the Minions are Despicable Me's equivalent, and they get a fine seeing to here, their scarce attempts at English and buffoonish body language making for a number of uproariously funny episodes. They also see a temporary physical change by way of a serum devised by the villain, which transforms the yellow, overall-wearing pellets into purple, scraggly-haired, gurning monsters keen to devour anything they set their eyes on. If the returning voice actors deliver completely what is expected of them - Carrell is as much the anchor as he was the first time around - it's the spry supporting turn from Kristin Wiig that really steals the show here, as the plucky yet nerdy agent who, as is obvious from early on, becomes positioned as Gru's love interest.
While it seems customary in animation to shoehorn in a romance, this is one that really works because of the repercussions it has for other characters, particularly Agnes, who laments having to sing in a pageant about the benefits of having a mother when, of course, she doesn't have one. That this resolves itself in an emotionally engaging - yet never saccharine - manner is a testament to the deft character development that has transpired through both of these films. With a similar approach to the Kung Fu Panda series, the first entry laid the framework, and the second has followed up with a more gratifying entry leaving plenty to savour for the inevitable third part. This is a gorgeously-animated film from top to bottom, so much so that it's easy to become lost in the world and forget that the film's villain isn't really up to much. Though Benjamin Bratt tries his best, there's just not a whole lot you can do with a generic Mexican wrestler bad guy, and this is unquestionably the picture's weak link, though not nearly enough to even begin to sink it. Spritely, affectionate and just plain good fun, Despicable Me 2 delivers the year's first animated big-hitter in a year full of flops thus far. Here's to number three. Despicable Me 2 is in UK cinemas tomorrow, and in the US on July 3rd.
Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.