For those of us who learned most of our vocabulary from Warner Brothers cartoons, Despicable Me sounds like an anarchic good time, the kind that our parents didn't want us to actually have when we were children. The makers of this movie follow through on that promise, but they do wrap it in a heart-warming fluffy message that sort of makes the chaos okay. Right?
Kids have to learn about anti-heroes sometimes, and so Despicable Me presents us with Gru (Steve Carell), the world's greatest supervillain. Or at least he would be, if someone hadn't managed to steal one of the pyramids and replace it with an inflatable fake.
There's a new generation of villain out there, and this up and comer Vector (Jason Segel) has the backing of the Bank of Evil, mainly due to nepotism. Again, good life lesson, kids, because while Vector seems somewhat intelligent, he's also got a strange obsession with creating weapons based on sea-life, even living in a secret lair that resembles Squiddly-Diddly's Bubbleland.
With his status as top villain challenged, Gru gathers his minions (directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, along with the stealthily brilliant Jemaine Clement) in a plot to steal the moon. Man cannot plot evil by yellow stubby things alone, so Gru also has help from Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), a wizened, deafened mad scientist from the days they did mad science right.
Yet none of their evil plans can come to fruition without the help of three orphan girls, because Vector has one weakness: girl scout cookies.
Yes, you can see the heartwarming coming a mile away. Coffin and Renaud do, however, keep a dash of dark humor throughout their story. Middle child Edith (Dana Gaier) fits in with Gru's mindset immediately, a goth girl with ambition. Yet there's also something manic about little Agnes' (Elsie Fisher) obsession with unicorns and unwillingness to understand reality. Maybe that's just being a kid. Kids can be weird, gloriously weird.
As was Gru, apparently, and that seems a bit of a mis-step, because his childhood flashbacks muddle up his motivations. Was he on track to be a normal citizen? Is he smart, or is it all Dr. Nefario? And where the heck did the Minions come from?
At least the Minions are funny, characters that are going to stay in kids' consciousnesses long after the plot fades from their memory. I sense a series of animated shorts coming.
As for the full-length movie here, for the most part it works, establishing its own rules and look. There's something casually funny about a world apparently in thrall to barely competent villains. Both Gru and Vector have very public and obvious lairs, with Vector actually displaying his stolen pyramid in his backyard. Yet "the Bank" that they all frequent goes to great length to keep hidden.
Perhaps that gives the filmmakers an excuse to play with light and dark. Where the worlds of Pixar seem bright and textured, the world of Despicable Me is all about where light doesn't shine, very theatrical in its exploration of how things cast shadows. At least until the girls start boring their way into Gru's heart, when Gru has to start interacting more with normal people.
"Normal" people, however, aren't that much better. There's something subversive about how regular civilians barely repress their nastier sides, especially in the form of the orphanage head Miss Hattie (Kristen Wiig), a southern belle whose best days have already been rung.
The directors have clearly chosen cast members with a penchant for using their voices for exaggeration, because with the exception of Segel and the girls (iCarly's Miranda Cosgrove voices the oldest, Margo), they've all attacked being cartoon characters with gusto. Brand is almost unrecognizable as Dr. Nefario, and Carell clearly relishes the chance to get away from his regular persona, not just affecting a vague European accent but changing up his speech rhythms. Old pro Julie Andrews matches him well as his disapproving mother.
In fact, Segel stands out by sounding like a normal person. Though a likeable enough actor, Segel doesn't have a particularly distinctive tone, and so Vector falls flatter than he's obviously intended to be. But then, this is all about Carell, who makes Gru far less despicable than the title would imply.
Despicable Me isn't fantastic filmmaking, but it shows a lot of promise for the studio. And unlike the emotionally deeper Toy Story 3, it actually is worth upgrading a bit to 3-D, offering long segments of thrill ride (including, of course, an actual thrill ride). It offers laughs, a heartwarming message and a fun subversive undertone. Plus there's minions.
In the lazy days of summer, sometimes you've just got to have fun, and Despicable Me offers just that.