Illumination’s Despicable Me is a wholly enjoyable foray into the same family friendly animation sandbox that Pixar usually plays in. It’s a testament to both Carell’s voice-acting and the gifted work of the art team that Despicable casts off the moniker of rip-off and begins to ascend to the status of equal. It never quite gets there, trading in its frantic, comic set-pieces for some unsuccessful sentiment a bit too soon, but this will do nicely as a fine debut for the fledgling animation studio.
Carell is voicing the evil super-villain Gru, who yearns more for the status of world’s greatest baddie than he does for any real gleeful destruction. Toiling for years in relative obscurity (in the basement of his mom’s house no less), always one step away from taking the crown, he’s finally got a plan, hatched with the help of his senile and hilarious inventor, Dr. Nefario and an army of yellow glove-people known only as ‘minions’. Using a shrink ray, Gru plans to steal the moon itself, ambitious even for one so satirically carved from the Bond-esque mold of megalomania. Unfortunately for Gru, the dorky but scheming Vector–his primary competition–steals the weapon and with it all of the ‘old guy’s’ thunder.
Up until this point, the film is soaring along as a kind of milder version of the old Mad Magazine comic strip, Spy Vs. Spy, replacing the more violent bits with a wonderfully playful wit. Julie Andrews voices Gru’s mother, and some of her lines, although hurtful in the context of the story (yes, it has a story!), are both acerbic and hilarious. The artists make Gru a kind of stilt-legged penguin, like the deranged parody of a Batman villain, and the soft-edged, colorful animation technique brings him to a fluid life that works for the bursting personality Carell has prepared for him. Jason Segal skirts the edge of annoyance as Vector, but he’s throwing himself into this so completely, that by the close, he had really grown on me. Extra points for Russell Brand’s Q-like inventor, who’s hitting the comedy button better and more often than Brand’s live-action persona did in the more adult Get Him To The Greek.
Not only borrowing the vibrant and crisp visual palette of a Pixar film, Despicable Me also attempts to duplicate the story depth and emotional heart that many associate with that other studio. For the most part, they succeed, giving Gru more complexity than we could expect or even conceive of, given the basic premise. What doesn’t work so well are the three young orphan girls that enter the story at mid-point. For narrative purposes, this happens because Gru needs some unsuspecting innocents to infiltrate Vector’s home and steal back the shrink ray. Their manifest cuteness and the resulting impact it has on Gru’s soul happens because the movie needs to get away with having a super-villain as the central character in a family film.
The catalyst for Gru’s eventual and obvious conversion, including an in-road to deal with his monster mommy issues, the three young girls are carbon copies of precocious children that would pop up in a lesser animated picture. They don’t capsize the movie, and they give Carrell’s zaniness an opportunity to reflect a gentler, more somber side, but their presence forces Despicable Me down a less despicable path, and as it turns out, less despicable means more boring.
Illumination nearly hits it out of the park on their first try, and they might have managed a great, nimble comedy surrounding sinister deeds and whiz-bang technology. Instead they try to force a bright concept into a dimmer screenplay than it deserves. The result is akin to almost stealing the moon; you didn’t get away with it, but it is the moon after all, and it’s a grand thing to even attempt.