There is plenty to admire in Despicable Me, the first film from Illumination Entertainment, which serves as NBC Universal’s family-fare subsidiary and was founded by an Ice Age executive producer. All of which is to say that this heavily marketed, computer-animated movie is not a Pixar or a Dreamworks. But after the likes of Coraline, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, the Ice Age films and others, this may be less of an automated presumption.
Despicable Me follows lovable anti-hero Gru, a super villain shaped like a bald, bird-headed refrigerator on top and a 1960s mod on bottom, wearing dark drainpipe pants and Chelsea boots. Gru is voiced by a severely goofy-sounding Steve Carell, who does his best Boris Badenov for the duration with varying degrees of success. It isn’t that he’s not funny or effective; it’s just that one rarely unhears that intrinsic Carell-ness in the delivery of lines like “Chillax!” or “Here’s the dealio.”
What’s nice about the movie’s conception of villainy, upon which the film’s entire premise rests, is that the bad guys are purely motivated by the execution of diabolical plots to thieve giant, iconic things. On a scale from 1 to Nefarious, it’s kind of adorable, like the pyramid that Gru’s youthful nemesis Vector (Jason Segel) captures and relocates within his home’s compound and hilariously camouflages with a blue sky/white cloud paint job. This is where Gru’s mission enters: because of the highly competitive nature of his line of work, Gru goes even bigger and decides to steal the moon. But when Vector steals his shrink ray (the natural choice for moon seizure), Gru’s plan is thrown until he can steal it back with the help of three conveniently adoptable orphans.
The evolution of Gru’s relationship with the girls is the movie’s real draw, and it helps that the three kids are written as sharp, tough, wacky, and individual. No little princesses or simpering delicacy here. Their accurately rendered kid natures careen off of Gru’s initially apathetic parenting style. When they first see their new “father,” their uncensored expressions of horror (similar to my own) give way to nonstop curiosity. To keep them out of his laboratory, Gru tries to set them up in the kitchen, where he’s deposited everything a child needs: food (a pile of candy), water in dog bowls, and newspaper laid out on the floor below a sign reading “poo poo pee pee.” Too perfect.
Besides the girls, the movie is filled with characters voiced by surprisingly hip comedic talent. There’s Russell Brand as Gru’s geriatric right hand Dr. Nefario, Will Arnett as an evil banker, Rob Heubel as a newscaster, Jermaine Clement as Gru’s little yellow pill-shaped minions, Mindy Kaling as “Tourist Mother” (whatever that is), and, happily, the instantly recognizable Jack McBrayer as a cocky amusement park worker. A quick word on those minions: They’re just okay. Why were they little alien overall-wearing yellow beans? They carried out two main functions: First, to serve as springy punching bags for physical humor that would not provoke the flinching of identification in child audience members: after all, they’re alien gummy bears! It doesn’t matter if it hurts when they get squished or exploded. And second, they make a nice visual statement as graphic elements for the marketing department in everything from one-sheets to kids’ meals. Like Carell’s accent, they’re initially questionable to distraction, but eventually fade into the action.
As with the animation style of the characters, the simplicity of how the minions are rendered is interesting next to the powerful 3D I saw the movie in. Its best moments are joy rides that flaunt and indulge in the moment and the technology, like a scene including a legitimately exhilarating first-person perspective rollercoaster ride. Plot-wise, it was frivolous, but to no detriment. It successfully delivered pure fun, as the entire movie managed to do with ease. Despicable Me’s tight plotline, casting, and sharp sense of humor place it at the top of surface-level kid fare that discerning adults — even those with no children to placate — will need no excuse to happily consume.