In a contest of wills, a villain with access to freeze rays and rocket ships is no match for a trio of adorable orphan girls. So we are reminded by "Despicable Me," an animated film featuring Steve Carell as the voice of Gru, an arch-fiend hamstrung by moppets.
The movie is funny in a prefabricated way (how many comedies have we seen about formidable figures losing a David-and-Goliath battle with tots?), heavy on razzle-dazzle eye candy and light on soul. You’ll likely leave the theater smiling, but don’t expect to be emotionally engaged, Pixar-style. You’ll be tickled, not touched.
The film works in broad strokes. Gru is villainy incarnate. He has the bald dome and leer of a Charles Addams cartoon character and a proboscis Pinocchio would envy. He speaks with a Transylvanian accent and lives in a spooky Victorian. He motors around town in a land yacht that squanders more petroleum than the Deepwater Horizon.
Worst of all, he picks on children. He’s resentful of a new kid on the block, a hotshot young villain named Vector (voiced by Jason Segel), who is even more nefarious. Vector has stolen an entire Egyptian pyramid, which he keeps hidden in his backyard, oh-so-subtly camouflaged with sky blue paint and renderings of fluffy white clouds. That makes Gru’s efforts look paltry: his collection of stolen world landmarks is full of dinky facsimiles from Vegas. Worse yet, Vector has seized the shrink ray that is the key to Gru’s latest brainstorm, a plot to steal the moon and hold it for ransom. Pesky kid!
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Vector’s lair is an impregnable ultramod fortress with defense systems that reduce Gru to an ash-faced Wile E. Coyote wreck. The boy mastermind’s only weakness is a yen for coconut cookies. To gain access, Gru adopts the three orphaned sisters who took Vector’s order door-to-door. No-nonsense Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), smart-alec Edith (Dana Gaier), and innocent little Agnes (Elsie Fisher) are to be his unwitting pawns in the heist.
Gru is comically brusque with the little newcomers, bored cross-eyed by their calls for bedtime stories and nighty-night kisses. Flashbacks show us the parenting he suffered at the talons of his harpy mother (irony alert: Julie Andrews). Ma systematically squashed little Gru’s fantasies, and all it takes is the orphans’ influence to puncture his bluster and thaw his icebound heart. This escapes being cloying, though sometimes by millimeters.
The action takes the cast through high-flying adventures in tin-can rocket ships, across tightropes and on roller coasters, which is where the film has the most fun. Directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin make clever use of 3-D effects, with stomach-dropping moments of vertigo and playful jokes about visual perspective.
The supporting cast is eye-catching, too. Gru is served by hordes of yellow, lozenge-shaped Oompa Loompas — sorry, “minions” — who supply diverting moments of head-bopping slapstick and gibberish dialogue when the main story needs a breather. The little thingamabobs (voiced by the directors) are cute, though they feel contrived to drive toy sales, and possibly launch a spinoff cartoon series. Russell Brand plays Dr. Nefario, Gru’s doddering old munitions-maker, who supplies a fart gun when a dart gun is required. I wonder how that joke will translate in foreign markets.
There are a few crumbs for the adults in the audience (jabs against Wall Street when Gru applies for a loan at the Bank of Evil; Chinese tanks blasting a dove out of the sky when it violates the airspace over the Great Wall). But most of the film is high-fructose kiddie treacle produced by sincere, uninspired B students.
“Despicable Me” operates timidly within the bounds of family entertainment, dealing in truisms and routine plot points rather than lampooning them. The film, from Universal Studios, a newcomer in the animation market, is so studiously conventional it feels hollow. Once again, the dramatic peak is a breakneck race to the kids’ recital. As Gru complains when he reads the youngsters a pasteboard baby book, “This is literature?”
I enjoyed myself well enough moment to moment, but I’d rather revisit the funnier, Grimm-er, altogether superior “Toy Story 3” any day.
** 1/2 **
Cast: Voices of Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Elsie Fisher, Russell Brand
Director: Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin
Rated: PG; rude humor and mild action
Running time: 1:35