There’s nothing like a little world domination to melt the most dastardly evildoer’s heart. Since villains so often steal the show in animation, “Despicable Me” smartly turns the whole operation over to megalomaniacal rogue Gru. Somewhere between the Grinch and Ernst Stavro Blofeld (and featuring a hunchbacked, hook-nosed look worthy of Charles Addams), the Steve Carell-voiced character feels like something Universal can franchise, if only they can convince auds to see it. Global prospects look solid (but hardly stellar) for this French-made 3D toon, the first in U’s all-ages animation deal with Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment.
Not unlike “Shrek” in the way it hinges on a high-concept character, a healthy dose of irreverence and a very weird accent, “Despicable Me” isn’t afraid to be silly in introducing an antihero for the ages (which makes for great in-the-moment fun, but not so much to take with you upon leaving the theater). With his clownish Russian-underworld-inflected voice, Gru prides himself in being the worst, though his exploits to date haven’t really been bad enough to earn his rightful place in history. When a rival villain makes off with the Great Pyramid of Giza, Gru realizes he has to step up his game. His plan: Get a Shrink Ray and steal the moon, then make everyone beg for mercy (though Shrink Rays are harder to come by than you might think).
Also not unlike “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” insofar as Gru’s plan relies on his adopting three adorable orphans and trying to raise them in his far-from-kid-friendly home, pic has plenty to appeal to both girls and boys. The sugar-and-spice set should root for poor, parentless Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher), who had it rough enough already at Miss Hattie’s Home for Girls (where Kristen Wiig plays the warden-like Miss Hattie), while the boys can geek out over all Gru’s gadgets, as well as the army of fluorescent-yellow “minions” (strange one- and two-eyed creatures who assist with his nefarious work).
And not unlike “Ratatouille,” which humanized hyper-critical Anton Ego by giving auds a glimpse into his childhood, Gru gets flashbacks, too, helping us to understand that all these crazy schemes are his way of making his mother (Julie Andrews, playing against type) proud. Also lifted from the Pixar playbook is the unflappable Agnes, whose ability to stand her ground in the face of adversity (say, having half a dozen missiles aimed at her head) recalls “Monsters, Inc.’s” Boo.
If all this overlap with other kids’ movies is starting to make “Despicable Me” sound somewhat unoriginal, such doubts instantly evaporate in context. Screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (working from an original idea by Sergio Pablos) use our familiarity with a number of toon tropes to establish a certain shorthand in the storytelling, delivering a narrative that’s not only witty but also efficient in the telling. When Gru finds himself upstaged by pyramid schemer Vector (Jason Segel), he enlists the three cookie-selling orphans to infiltrate his rival’s lair.
Produced by former Fox Animation president Meledandri, the film feels quite different from the Blue Sky projects (namely, “Ice Age”) that launched his career. “Despicable Me” plays young, but the script is genuinely clever, delivering much of its humor visually (all the better to translate internationally). As such, pic distinguishes itself from most of the CG-animated competition out there, owing more to Mad magazine (the escalating Gru-vs.-Vector conflict brings “Spy vs. Spy” strips to mind) than other stereoscopic 3D toons.
Directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin manage to keep the pace brisk without things becoming manic, packing the frame and piling on the jokes so as to reward repeat viewings. Somewhere along the way, the duo realized they’d struck gold with the minions (most of whom are voiced by the directors themselves, in a form of high-pitched gibberish), who easily upstage Gru’s other accomplice, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand). As a result, the movie is crawling with the odd creatures (as are the pic’s posters and trailers).
Clearly less expensive than Pixar or DreamWorks, yet polished enough to compete in their midst (with the heavy lifting done by f/x house Mac Guff, stepping into another realm with this project), “Despicable Me” still faces a formidable challenge in getting auds to sample yet another 3D entry from an unknown outfit. One way the filmmakers have hedged their bet is by enlisting Pharrell Williams to write the theme song and score (with Heitor Pereira’s help). The bassy music powers in and pumps up the movie whenever energy flags for a second, giving the whole affair a hip-hop-infused “Mission: Impossible” feel.