Over the last few years, CG animation has become a familiar fixture on the big screen. Its quality runs the usual range, from the truly exceptional (Toy Story 3 and Up) to the better-than-average (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) and the only-average (Monsters vs. Aliens), and to the execrable (Battle For Terra). Universal’s new 3D CG-animated release, Despicable Me, is the first feature from its recently established animation house, Illumination Entertainment. While solid and competent, it falls squarely in the middle of the bell curve.
To its credit, Despicable Me tells an original story, at least in the sense that it is not adapted from an existing source. The plot is interesting: It essentially casts a super-villain as the protagonist. Despite the implications of the teaser trailer, Gru (Steve Carrell) is actually the world’s most mediocre super-villain, and his only meager accomplishments involve stealing scale landmark replicas from Las Vegas casinos. But, undeterred by discouraging words from his nagging mother (Julie Andrews), Gru is determined to make a name for himself. Along with his trusted army of Minions and the scientist Doctor Nefario (Russell Brand), Gru plans to literally steal the moon from Earth’s orbit. Accomplishing this requires the use of a shrink ray that falls into the possession of a rival super-villain, Vector (Jason Segel). To create a diversion so he can sneak into Vector’s compound and steal the shrink-ray, Gru adopts three adorable young orphaned girls who sold cookies to Vector: Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Elsie Fisher). It does not take a genius to figure out that Gru will form a father-like bond with the three young girls and truly come to love and care for them. But becoming a father conflicts with Gru’s goals of stealing the moon and becoming a renowned criminal mastermind.
Despicable Me is definitely amusing through its hour-and-a-half plus running time, but it is never outright hilarious. The story misses many opportunities to riff on super-villains. Although Gru is the “despicable” person of the title, he does not come off as truly despicable. Early in the story, Gru does annoying things, like making and then popping a balloon for a kid who lost an ice cream cone. He uses a freeze ray on people ahead of him at a coffee shop, and he bonks into other cars when parallel parking. Gru jokingly delivers veiled threats to his neighbor when the neighbor’s dog defecates on his lawn. But these aside, Gru is not truly despicable or, for that matter, much of an actual super-villain. He simply appears to possess a grumpy streak. Perhaps if Gru were truly a wicked super-villain rather than an amateurish and aspiring one, his transformation into a father figure would be more compelling.
The appointed mascots of the movie are the yellow pill- or Twinkie-shaped Minions of Gru, who perpetrate most of the gags. They are definitely chuckle worthy, but at times come off like a studio-mandated merchandising device. I would not be surprised if Universal created some sort of spin-off TV series centered on the Minions. Overall though, the Minions are the comedic energy of the piece.
In general, the actors served their characters well. Russell Brand and Jason Segel are downright unrecognizable and demonstrate a good vocal range. Segel’s Vector is another super-villain wannabe who is able to overcompensate by being a spoiled rich kid who more or less wants to play at being a super-villain. Here’s another place where the story is too tame, as there just isn’t much of difference between Gru and his rival, Vector. Vector and Gru never truly appear to be true super-villains. The most villainous character is the head of the Bank of Evil, Mr. Perkins (Will Arnett). Mr. Perkins is the prospective financier of Gru’s moon theft operation, but Perkins feels Gru is getting long in the tooth and losing his edge.
Visually, the story comes alive in 3D. There are frequent wide shots featuring the Minions tinkering away or goofing off in the foreground or almost jumping out of the screen. The animation team clearly put some thought into utilizing 3D as a storytelling and presentation device, and there are some incredibly humorous gags such as the inconspicuous home base locations. The character designs are a mixed bag, but consistent. Gru has the coolest character design, suggesting an odd cross between Alfred Hitchcock and the 007 villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Many of the other human character designs in the film are rather hard on the eyes with their insanely exaggerated features and spindly bodies. However, at times the visual design of the movie and the characters feels reminiscent to that of a children’s story illustration, which adds a pleasant and fun whimsy to the atmosphere.
Overall, Despicable Me comes off as acceptable and fun entertainment for the entire family. However, I doubt it will receive a Best Animated Feature nomination early next year.