Shoot for the moon: 'Despicable Me' doesn't reach Pixar heights, but comes close
“Despicable Me’’ is an oddity but an entertaining one. Its villainous cartoon hero, Gru, has a broad, bulbous body atop two pipe-cleaner legs. His head suggests an egg with a stork’s beak poking through from the inside. He speaks in a ripe accent that’s roughly triangulated by Russia, Germany, and the Borscht Belt; if the ads didn’t say it was Steve Carell doing the talking, you’d never know.
The decision to hang a 3-D animated family film on this character is one of the mysteries of the season. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that if audiences like stinky green ogres so much they’d go for an amusing fusion of Boris Badenov and Dr. Evil. Luckily, “Despicable Me’’ has enough visual novelty and high spirits to keep the kiddies diverted and just enough wit to placate the parents.
Gru, who lives in a towering Addams-style mansion in cookie-cutter suburbia, wants to be the greatest supervillain the world has ever known, but someone has stolen the Great Pyramid of Giza, and it wasn’t him. Down in his basement laboratory, the evildoer summons his fusty British technical expert, Dr. Nefarious (I thought it was Bill Nighy’s voice, but it turns out to be bad boy Russell Brand in a fun character role), and his army of cute lil’ pill-shaped oompa-loompas to design a daring heist of the moon itself.
The first catch: Gru has to steal a shrink-ray from his rival, a gleeful nerd supervillain named Vector (Jason Segel). The second catch: The trio of adorable orphaned girl scouts Gru adopts to help get him in Vector’s door (the plan involves robot cookies) threaten to thaw out his black heart and bring out his paternal side. Horrors!
What do you think happens? That’s right, of course it does. Still, “Despicable Me’’ goes down easily. The film’s the first release from Illumination Entertainment, an independent production company headed up by Chris Meledandri, the former Fox executive behind the “Ice Age’’ series. He has farmed out the digital animation to the French company Mac Guff Ligne and the results are bright, brisk, and clever — if the movie isn’t up to Pixar’s level of inspiration, at least it’s looking in that direction.
The little yellow minions are funny and varied enough to sustain a movie on their own (or at least a short subject), and while there’s not a lot of humor aimed at adults, what’s there is rich: The financial institution Gru approaches to fund his evil-doing is named the “Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers).’’ At its most elegantly manic — the scenes dealing with the rivalry between Gru and Vector — “Despicable Me’’ has the zip of Mad magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy’’ crossed with an old Warner Bros. cartoon. The 3-D, while not really necessary to the tale, is just right, adding spaciousness without putting your eye out.
And Carell? Bless him, he gives an actual performance and thus mines the necessary sympathy for Gru. The rest of the voice cast is filled out by Miranda “iCarly’’ Cosgrove as the oldest of the orphans, Kristen Wiig as their Miss Hannigan, and Julie Andrews (again, unrecognizably) as the main character’s judgmental mamma. The movie hints at the emotional damage that has made Gru who he is — apparently a supervillain’s worst friend is his mother — before sweeping any bummer vibes away in bursts of colorful invention.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.