Delightful and droll, Despicable Me is also refreshingly modest. And it’s fun.
All animated films fall under the shadow of mighty Pixar, which has set the gold standard. But that doesn’t mean that every animated film must follow the same pattern. Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, Despicable Me is less story-driven and more gag-oriented than the typical Pixar outing, and less dialogue-oriented than the usual Dreamworks product. It plays like an interconnected series of skits and blackouts, tied together with the connective tissue of a featherweight fable.
Really, it’s a comic misadventure, featuring a villain as the good guy. Tall and dressed in black, Gru (voiced by Steve Carrell) should be a fearsome sight, but instead he’s a bit pathetic and sad. We quickly learn that he only became a villain to win the affections of his unsupportive mother (voiced by Julie Andrews). He’s a lost little boy seeking approval.
His most notable accomplishment, though, is probably the creation of tiny little creatures known as minions. They move in waves like insects, yet are humanoid in appearance and, it must be admitted, very cute. They’re an army, but they always look out for the best interests of the group as a whole, and are very loyal to their creator. They speak their own language of grunts and groans and moans and sighs, and it’s all quite endearing.
Gru, who fancies himself the world’s top villain, has been superseded by the exploits of a mysterious new villain, who is boldly stealing the world’s great monuments — the Egyptian pyramids, the Eiffel Tower — by miniaturizing them. Gru comes up with a grand plan to recapture his imaginary crown by devious means: first stealing the miniaturizing device and then using it to shrink the Moon, so he can steal it too.
He is denied his usual line of credit from the Bank of Evil, little suspecting that the bank president’s son (voiced by Jason Segel) is the one who is carrying out the large-scale thefts in disguise as the master criminal Vector. Gru’s efforts to break into Vector’s well-guarded home are foiled until he spies three little cookie-selling orphan girls receive a warm welcome. It seems that Vector has a sweet tooth, and Gru quickly seizes on his opponent’s soft spot by scheming to adopt the girls and use them to gain access to Vector’s inner sanctum — and his most prized possession, the super-duper miniaturizing gun.
But Gru has a soft spot of his own. The girls, who act like children rather than miniature adults (praise be!), begin to melt his heart, and Gru finds it increasingly difficult to carry out his sinister plan. Will he resist the temptation to step over to the good side?
I resisted the film’s charms, initially, until I saw a visual gag that made me laugh (the former name of the Bank of Evil) and then the accumulation of silliness, and the fact that all of the characters are goofy yet well-intentioned in their own manner, broke down my resistance. Despicable Me may not reach the rarefied heights of certain other animated pictures this summer, yet it provides more than enough entertainment value for children (especially) and adults, and all without ever insulting the audience.
It’s a lovely treat.
[Despicable Me opens wide in 2D today through the Metroplex. Some theaters are offering it in 3D, which is a nifty bonus and subtly handled, but not essential to enjoyment of the picture.]