The best animated movie so far this year is, without a doubt, Toy Story 3, but while that movie was never less than satisfying, it was also at times quite emotionally grueling. Despicable Me doesn’t have that problem. As it begins, the movie’s odd subject matter makes it look like it might be a little weirder and more unpredictable than most cartoons, but the movie quickly turns pretty conventional. Luckily, while it can be predictable, the film is also very funny and very sweet.
Steve Carell plays the voice of Gru, a hulking, Russian evildoer who has channeled his host of mommy issues toward the purpose of supervillainy. With the help of his gadget maker, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), and a bunch of little yellow minions that look like gel caps with overalls, Gru has become one of the world’s most diabolical villains. He has stolen the Statue of Liberty (but only the small one from Las Vegas) and the Eiffel Tower (again, the Vegas version), and has dreams of moving up in the world.
Gru really seems to enjoy being evil. It’s his avocation, not just his vocation. He’s evil in all aspects of his daily life, from the way he drives to the creative way he cuts in line at the coffee shop. His giant black house totally ruins the beauty of an otherwise picturesque suburban street. He even goes out of his way to make children cry whenever he can.
After an up-and-coming supervillain, a bespectacled nerd in a track suit who calls himself Vector (Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Jason Segel), steals the Great Pyramid of Giza, Gru really feels the need to step up, and take his evil to the next level, so he comes up with a daring plan to…wait for it, steal the moon!
Despite the fact that Gru seems to delight in douchebaggery, the world we see in this film treats villainy like a grind. There’s all sorts of backbiting and competition between villains. And even though you might hope that evil could free someone from the pressures of the bottom line, the villains still have to turn a profit. When Gru can’t finance his lunar theft, he turns to the Bank of Evil, which promptly turns him down. The corrupt bank is the real villain here. Gru is just a man with a dream to steal the moon, but the evil institution stands in his way. It’s nice to see a cartoon take on the problems and the can-do spirit of the American small businessman.
After his repeated attempts to break into Vector’s lair to obtain the shrink ray he needs for his evil scheme end in failure, Gru decides to adopt three cute little orphan girls so they can get into Vector’s house by selling him some Girl Scout cookies. Using supervillains as the main characters had been a fairly refreshing departure from the normal, cutesy subject matter featured in most animated films, but the second those little girls enter the film anyone who has ever seen a movie before can immediately see where the rest of the film is going. The girls are going to melt Gru’s black, Grinchy little heart, and the four of them will become a happy family.
Even though the film turns to the conventional, it still does sweet and sappy very well. The three little girls are relentlessly cute, and are a little weirder than most movie children. The oldest, and most pragmatic is Margo (Miranda Cosgrove). Edith (Dana Gaier), the middle child, is perpetually clad in aviator goggles. Agnes (Elsie Fisher), the youngest and most unicorn-obsessed, is particularly hilarious. Just listen to her bizarre delivery of the line, “It’s so fluffy; I’m gonna die!” It’s no wonder these girls make Gru see the error of his ways, and Carell makes his transformation believable, even if he spends as much time chewing on his Russian accent as he does emoting.
Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud direct the film with panache, keeping things sprightly and fast-moving throughout. The film was obviously designed for 3-D, and it uses the technology quite well (did it really take this long to set a 3-D sequence on a roller coaster?), while not letting the film become dim or muddled like many of the live action features, such as Clash of the Titans or The Last Airbender, that have been retrofitted for 3-D after they were shot.
Even if the film doesn’t turn out to be quite as unusual as I had hoped, it does do one thing that is fairly unusual: It uses its voice cast more for their comedic skills than their star power. Quite a few of the cast members are almost unrecognizable in their roles, but they all give great voice performances. After all, what eight-year-old is really going to want to see a cartoon because Steve Carell does a voice in it? Maybe he or she was a fan of The 40 Year Old Virgin.
I may have preferred a darker and more unusual version of Despicable Me, but not all kids’ movies have to traumatize the children that watch them, even if I might prefer it that way. As it stands, the film is a silly little trifle that is nowhere near as emotionally resonant as Toy Story 3, but it is a very exciting movie with a big heart and lots of laughs.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.