CUTE OVERLOAD Sparkly vampires are powerless at the box office against Carell's secret weapon: adorable minions.
For a movie that is primarily designed to help families enjoy a little air-conditioned silliness together, Despicable Me is fine. The night I saw it, the giggles and awws of kids from about 7 to 12 indicated the latest 3-D computer-animated flick was reaching its target audience with a vengeance.
How could it not? The movie features a crew of wee PacMan-yellow, pencil-eraser-shaped creatures with googly eyes who speak in nonsensical burbles. They’re the minions of hero/supervillain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), and they will remind adult viewers very strongly of Beaker from the Muppets, just as Gru himself might remind them of Danny DeVito playing the Penguin in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns.
But to younger viewers, the minions are probably just irresistibly cute. So is the tiny orphan with the eyes of a puppy in a velvet painting (voiced by Elsie Fisher) who, with her two sisters, comes into Gru’s life and ends up melting his heart. Talk about a kid’s favorite plot twist: A child’s love can reform even a supervillain set on world domination!
That sticky aspect aside, Despicable Me has a bright and sunny, ’60s pop-art aesthetic that’s fun to look at. Directed by two former animators, Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud (who also voice the minions), it makes good use of the layered 3-D illusion with many “aerial” shots and an exciting POV ride on a roller coaster. If you’ve ever wondered what you’d see if the director didn’t “cut away” just as an approaching 3-D object seems ready to poke you in the eye, stay for the credits.
Those throwaway bits at the end offer more cheeky surprises than the movie itself, which is largely boilerplate. Gru seems to have been conceived as a cross between a Bond villain, a comic-book nemesis and Michael Scott indulging in one of his flights of fancy. (Carell uses a generic Boris-and-Natasha-like accent throughout.) He has a harpie mother who warped him (Julie Andrews) and a mad-scientist henchman (Russell Brand) whose running gag consists of being half deaf.
We learn that, like everyone else, supervillains are struggling to adapt to the new economy. Eager to reestablish his relevance by capturing the moon, Gru finds himself competing with a lisping young upstart named Vector (Jason Segel) who bears a remarkable resemblance to Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s übernerd superhero in Kick-Ass.
The likeness is worth pointing out because the live-action, R-rated Kick-Ass bombed at the box office. Internet arbiter Box Office Mojo took this as an indication that the movie-going public doesn’t get superhero comedies. But apparently it does cotton to PG-rated supervillain comedies, or at least producers think so: Despicable Me will be followed by the similarly themed MegaMind this fall. Maybe it’s an indication of the power of comic-book-store-guy culture that all of us — even those under 10 — know the tropes of the genre well enough to mock them with gleeful abandon.
Adults just shouldn’t expect anything of Pixar quality, or even as clever as How to Train Your Dragon. One gag sums up the filmmakers’ attempts to reach an older audience: When Gru applies for a loan at the Bank of Evil, its sign reads, “Formerly Lehman Brothers.” Heh. That scrap of satire won’t age well. Cartoon megalomania may be cured by love, but the American profit motive survived the turmoil of Wall Street to bring us this movie.