The trailer for Inception has caused a stir in movieland by being mysterious and not giving away too much of the movie’s plot. Well, the trailers for the animated 3-D kids’ movie Despicable Me have been playing in theaters for well over a year, and it turns out they don’t give away much of the movie’s plot either. That turns out to be a smart move for this slight but agreeable film, for reasons that we’ll get into later.
The main character is Gru (voiced by Steve Carell with a vague Slavic accent), a supervillain who, when he’s not planning world-shaking crimes, spends his time popping kids’ balloons and using a freeze ray to cut the line at his coffee shop. One of the things that darkens his mood is the fierce competition he gets from younger, cooler supervillains like the loudmouthed nerd calling himself Vector (voiced by Jason Segel) who jacks the Great Pyramid out of Egypt and hides it in his backyard. Faced with this, Gru plans to recover his mojo by stealing the moon out of the sky.
Here’s what the trailers don’t tell you: Gru takes the unlikely step of adopting three unwanted girls from an orphanage (voiced by Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, and Elsie Fisher) because they have access to Vector’s fortress by virtue of selling cookies that Vector likes. Having to play dad suddenly puts this would-be master criminal in touch with his human side.
This is an abysmal idea on paper, yet somehow the movie doesn’t turn mushy, neither when Gru is revealed to have a cold-hearted mother (voiced by Julie Andrews) nor when he has to dash frantically to catch the girls’ dance recital after pulling his moon heist. The girls are such cool and self-contained characters that they dry the movie out, and it’s good that the movie doesn’t use them to yank at your heartstrings.
So despite heavy odds, this movie manages not to do anything terribly wrong. The trouble is, it doesn’t do anything terribly right, either. Occasional jokes hit home, like Gru going supervillain on a rigged carnival game that rips off the girls, and a great, stinging topical gag when Gru visits the Bank of Evil for a loan. Gru’s army of minions is a terrific comic creation, comprising hundreds of two-foot-tall goggle-wearing yellow beings who talk in gibberish, bop each other on the head, and build rocket ships. Yet they don’t have enough to do, and neither does a supporting voice cast drawn from Judd Apatow’s circle and NBC’s sitcoms (including Russell Brand, Kristen Wiig, Will Arnett, Danny McBride, Jack McBrayer, and Mindy Kaling). With all this talent, there should have been more laughs.
The only time the film finds a comic groove is during the closing credits, in which three minions hold a contest on a precipice to see how far they can reach over the edge. This innovative, unpretentious, and funny sequence is the best use of the new 3-D technology I’ve seen. If more of this invention had been spread through the rest of the movie, Despicable Me would have been fantastic instead of just the pleasantly watchable piece of entertainment that it is.
Voices by Steve Carell and Jason Segel. Directed by Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin. Written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio. Rated PG.