(by Dustin Putman
It may not have the dramatic relevance or quite the storytelling potency that Pixar regularly dishes out, but Universal Pictures' "Despicable Me" is a solid computer-animated family film in its own right. Candy-coated in dazzling hues (that, alas, are slightly dulled in the 3-D theatrical presentation) and featuring a memorable ensemble of characters, the picture's first-time directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, along with screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (2008's "College Road Trip"), go blessedly light on the pop-cultural references and jokes and instead present a tale that feels fairly timeless. It doesn't leave a deep impression after the fact, but it's certainly entertaining as it plays out. Article continues below
When Egypt's Great Pyramid of Giza is stolen and replaced with a squishy fake, the world is left perplexed over who the culprit may be. For Gru (voiced by Steve Carrell), a man who prides himself on being the sneakiest supervillain of them all, he is suddenly left threatened by this new bad guy in his midst. In an attempt to one-up him, Gru seeks the help of his yellow-blobbed minions and brilliant dastardly scientist Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) to devise his greatest scheme yet: to literally steal the moon from out of the sky. Despite his generally antisocial behavior, Gru adopts three cookie-selling orphaned sisters—Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher)—as a sly means of working his way into the compound of Vector (Jason Segel), the fellow baddie in question, and getting a jump on the competition. As Gru's plans move forward, the most unexpected thing happens to him: he starts to genuinely like and care about his new daughters. If anyone can melt a man's coal-infested heart, it's them.
"Despicable Me" can be devilishly clever when it wants to be, filled with shrewd little visual gags that will pleasure adults while the kids in the audience enjoy it on their own respective level. Vector, the thief of the aforementioned Pyramid of Giza, none-too-subtly has painted the landmark and placed it in plain view, towering high behind his home. Naturally, no one notices. Gru gets his kicks out of offering children on the street balloon animals and then popping them with pins, and also isn't above icing the customers of a coffee shop with his freeze-ray gun so he can move to the front of the line. The bank he belongs to is in a hidden back chamber, titled "The Bank of Evil," formerly Lehman Brothers, and his pet is a part-dog, part-piranha wildebeest. The root to his pernicious ways isn't a surprise, either, once it is revealed via flashback that he could never garner the approval of his mother (Julie Andrews), whose response to his increasingly lavish and amazing childhood inventions was always the same: a disinterested "eh."
Where "Despicable Me" is headed is never in question, but the key to why it works comes down to its light tone and the earnest redemption of its lead protagonist/antagonist. Gru may be villainous, but it's clear that there is a good person hiding underneath his tough exterior. Because he's never outright harming anyone (that we see), he is likable in spite of his played-for-laughs wickedness. The relationship he forms with Margo, Edith and Agnes is adorable; at first, he is the last person you'd want raising three young girls, but he warms up to them—and them to him—culminating in some really sweet moments. A trip to a seaside amusement park is as thrilling as its roller-coasters, and a late scene where he reads them a bedtime story that coincides with his own feelings for them is touching without becoming cloying. These human elements are significantly stronger than the inevitable climactic feud between Gru and Vector, full of flying and sky-set action that is reminiscent of—and done better in—2009's "Up" and 2010's "How to Train Your Dragon."
Loaded with fun original songs either performed or produced by Pharrell Williams, "Despicable Me" is a genial, high-energy family movie, minor yet winning. Voicing Gru, Steve Carell (2010's "Date Night") is inspired in his Russian-accented tackle of the character, and so are Kristen Wiig (2010's "MacGruber"), as the Miss Hannigan-like owner of the orphanage Miss Hattie, and Miranda Cosgrove (2005's "Yours, Mine and Ours"), Dana Gaier and Elsie Fisher as Margo, Edith and Agnes. A closing-credits gimmick where Gru's minions test the limits of the 3-D format by aiming tape measures and ladders at the audience come off as ineffective and cornball—and will make no sense when seen in preferable two dimensions—but at least it is avoidable. After all, when seen at home, the film can simply be turned off once the end credits begin. As the gentle story of a lost man who finds his humanity at the same time he discovers love can be a reciprocal emotion, "Despicable Me" has its heart in just the right place.