It ain't Pixar, but who is?
Universal Pictures has come late to the computer-animated ball with only Horton Hears a Who to give it any street cred. But after the incredible box office successes of Pixar and top tier Dreamworks (Kung Fu Panda, Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon), the studio has decided to wake up and smell the 3-D roses.
Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is a suburban-dwelling, third-tier evil mastermind whose recent exploits have failed to excite the criminal underworld. Worse, Vector (Jason Segel), a younger, geekier upstart, has set the bar for nefarious deeds by stealing the Great Pyramid of Giza. Why? Who knows? Despicable Me's world is a nonsensical mirror image of The Incredibles, where super villains struggle to upstage one another for no apparent reason. With his reputation and bank account on the line, Gru concocts a plan to steal North Korea's shrink-ray gun, miniaturize the moon, then demand an outrageous ransom. Unfortunately, Vector swipes the gun and hides it away in his impenetrable fortress. Desperate to gain access, Gru adopts a trio of cuter-than-cute orphans in order to sell Vector his favorite Girl Scout cookies while he sneaks in unnoticed.
Obviously, logic isn't a big concern here. Inspired and paced like an extended Looney Tunes cartoon, Despicable Me borrows from a handful of better CGI kids' flicks while unspooling a predictable Scrooge-like storyline. And yet, directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud exploit the film's narrative clichés to good effect, filling the movie with clever gags, visual panache and a surprising amount of heart. For the film's first half, Carell's heavily accented evildoer is an amusing anti-hero with an army of endearing minions. Coffin and Renaud take you behind the scenes and into the twisted Wonka-like world of their Bond-style bad guy. It's entertaining stuff filled with hilarious, Twinkie-shaped henchmen and ridiculously over-the-top gizmos. But they don't go far enough. Before the saccharine-sweet orphans show up and turn Gru into a bowl of sappy mush, the movie should've indulged in a bit more nastiness. Spoofing the world of super villains presents a universe of criminally inspired options, and Despicable Me barely scratches the surface. Just as things start warming up, the movie detours into its brazenly sentimental second half.
And for all intents and purposes, it shouldn't work. The orphans are sickeningly sweet; Segal falls somewhere between Jerry Lewis obnoxious and Jon Lovitz whiny, and the plotting is hackneyed as hell. And yet, Carell and the animators restrain Gru's transformation enough to sell the whole tooth-decaying finale. Aided by Gru's scene-stealing minions and some clever uses of 3-D (a rollercoaster ride and tightrope walk are particularly effective), the movie mostly overcomes its baser, more commercial instincts (can you say "studio synergy") to entertain both parents and tots.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].