Gru, the ghoulish meanie at the center of this computer-animated children’s flick, turns out to be very like Scrooge—a supposedly implacable fellow whose heart can be softened by doe-eyed kids. (Even the name sounds a bit similar.) The Dickens formula works better here than it did in “Disney’s Christmas Carol” last year, but “Despicable Me” could have used a bit more of the darkness of that picture. It goes squishy awfully fast.
Gru (voiced with a pretty thick accent by Steve Carell), looking a bit like a computer-generated version of Uncle Fester, is a self-styled villain whose aim is to overdo in sheer nastiness all other evil-doers in the world. When he’s overshadowed by a newcomer, a bratty kid who calls himself Vector (Jason Segel), who steals the great pyramid (leaving an inflated rubber copy in its place), Gru decides to top him by hatching his most dastardly scheme yet—stealing the moon.
That, however, requires two things. One is a big loan from the Bank of Evil (whose sign includes one of the funniest gags in the picture—not revealed here). The other is a shrinking ray he needs to steal. Unfortunately, when he goes after it, Vector steals it from him.
To get it back, Gru adopts three orphans—Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher)—from the home for girls run by the nasty Miss Hattie (Kristen Wiig). They’ve taken a cookie order from Vector, and Gru figures he can use their delivery to break into his fortress and get the ray back. Of course, the inevitable happens: the tykes gradually win him over, and in the end he cares more about them than his wicked schemes. He becomes Uncle Gru.
There’s lots of stuff here that the kids will enjoy, not least the little yellow critters that form Gru’s stable of workers—the “Minions” or “Mins,” who jabber away in chipmunk-like voices and get into all sorts of slapstick mischief. (They’re obviously intended for a place in happy meals or an afterlife as suction-cup additions to car windows.) And it should appeal to both boys and girls, the former with all the action sequences (the biggest at the close, of course), and the latter with the sweeter material involving the orphans and their winning Gru over.
But there’s also enough to keep their parents amused, both in terms of Carell’s ghoulish, lip-smacking turn and passing jokes like that one at the bank.
If there’s a failing to “Despicable Me,” it’s that the nasty pre-reformation side of Gru could have been exploited more. As it is, he gets nice awfully quickly—and though the orphans are spunky, their cuteness level sometimes goes off the dial. (It’s also a bit obvious to explain the source of his meanness in his unsupportive mother, voiced by Julie Andrews. Though that does make for some funny flashbacks.) The other problem is with Vector, a Jerry Lewis type who just isn’t very funny. Nor, surprisingly, is Gru’s second-in-command Dr. Nefario (Russell Banks); but then nobody could have matched all those minions.
Like virtually all animated pictures nowadays, this one is in 3D (though some theatres will show it in the flat-screen format), and it has the good sense to poke fun at the effect itself. SCTV used to do that, and it’s about time one of these movies did too.
In spite of its trip to the moon, “Despicable Me” doesn’t reach the heights of a “Ratatouille” or “Up,” or even “Toy Story 3.” But the Pixar films set an unrealistic standard for what’s essentially a new production company. As a first-time effort, this is a reasonably engaging ’toon that both kids and grownups should enjoy.