Steve Carell knew the first Despicable Me film had something singular going for it after he witnessed the reaction of an unlikely viewer.
"I saw a preview with a friend, a guy in his early 40s - no kids, not the demographic the movie was targeting," the actor says during an interview in Beverly Hills. "He loved it. He cried, and he's not a super emotional guy, and he laughed, and it really touched him. That made me think that something special might be afoot."
Carell was not wrong: the 2010 animated feature film, for which he supplied the voice of the villainous main character, Felonious Gru, earned almost US$550 million at the global box office - which immediately made it a candidate for franchise-dom.
Three years later, Despicable Me 2 reunites Gru with his henchman, Dr Nefario (again voiced by Russell Brand): Gru is now a reformed man, a father of three adopted girls, and their household is a rambunctious mass of small, yellow, multi-tasking, gibberish-speaking creatures known as Minions.
There are new characters too - including those voiced by Benjamin Bratt, Steve Coogan and Ken Jeong - but the story still revolves around the tall, broad and bald Gru.
Gru's new family life is replete with comedic possibilities, says scriptwriter Cinco Paul.
"Now that he's a dad, what does that mean?" Paul says. "Does he drop the kids off at school and go pull a heist?"
This time, Paul and fellow scriptwriter Ken Daurio have made Gru distinctly more feminised. But while Gru has decided to sideline causing havoc in the world in favour of being a father to his daughters and running a jam-making factory underneath his house, he still has his famous freeze-ray gun in his pocket. And when he's recruited by the crime-fighting Anti-Villain League to stop a mysterious criminal in his tracks, he has an opportunity to use it again.
Despicable Me 2 offers plenty of laughs - and some inevitable romance. A running theme for a good part of the film has Gru aghast that his eldest daughter, Margo (voiced by Miranda Cosgrove), has fallen for the charms of a pre-teen Lothario named Antonio.
Himself the father of a young girl, Carell confesses that he can completely relate. "There's a fine line between being protective and being a jerk. You don't want to see [your kids] get hurt, but you know they will eventually, and at some point you have to let that happen. You can't protect them from that forever," he says.
"I know it sounds dumb, but I did relate to that part of the movie. Every day, I wish I had a freeze ray in my back pocket, to take out that jerky suitor, to do no damage, but to stop him in his tracks. He'll be fine once he thaws out."
Considered one of the funniest men of his generation, Carell is also known to be among the nicest and most "normal" people in Hollywood. His reputation as a comedic talent was sealed after his star turn in The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), and he went on to make successful TV appearances as well, including a starring part in The Office, which just ended after a nine-year run (Carell had already left the show, although he did return for a part in the finale.)
Kristen Wiig, who has a small part in the first film as the mean head of an orphanage, returns to the Despicable Me franchise as Gru's crime-fighting partner, Anti-Villain League agent Lucy Wilde. Daurio says Wilde was inspired almost entirely by Wiig. "We wrote [the part] for her," he says. "She's like who she is - enthusiastic, a little wacky and adorable. She completely inspired us."
In contrast, Bratt stepped in at the 11th hour to take over from Al Pacino, the original choice to supply the voice of new character El Macho. For Bratt, voicing the lead suspect in Gru's undercover investigation for the Anti-Villain League posed a challenge but also represented a great opportunity. "I was coming aboard a franchise I was already in love with, and I was happy to see that the sequel brings back the characters I fell in love with," he says. "The first one was a beautiful balance of subversive and almost adult-like humour with a kind of tenderness. It was an easy yes."
But even as he leapt at the chance to be part of the Despicable Me franchise, Bratt knew his assignment would not be all that easy. After all, as the actor notes, he had to adapt his voice and speech to a character created for a major movie star.
"The challenge was to come in and relocate the soul of the character. My initial approach was a huge mis-step. I thought I'd do Al Pacino; problem solved," Bratt says. "But I can't out-Pacino Pacino. So it was a couple of days of agony, and I drove home almost in tears, thinking, 'What have I done?'"
In the end though, Bratt pulls it off - and in the process, he brings a bold, brassy voice to El Macho's equally outlandish character.
Paul and Daurio, who co-wrote both films, say the unexpected success of the first film forced them to think especially hard about the follow-up. "You don't want to let the fans down," says Paul, "and you want to give them what they want but also you have to go somewhere new, and make it fun and interesting in that way. We were nervous, because in the first one, we weren't thinking about a sequel. It was, 'Here's the story, and it's finished'."
The scene-stealing Minions were such a successful part of the first film, no doubt something to be repeated in the second, that they justified their own movie, which comes out in late 2014. And there is already talk of a follow-up to Despicable Me 2.
"This movie ends with a beginning," Paul says. "So there's probably more of a story there."
Despicable Me 2 opens on Thursday