Anyone who ever thought an Austin Powers movie would be better if it focused on Dr. Evil and did away with the double entendres should be mighty pleased with "Despicable Me," the new computer-generated comedy from Universal Studios.
With his bald head and cloak, Gru (Steve Carrell) looks quite a bit like Dr. Evil. Gru is one of the world's leading super-villains, happy to jaunt around town making balloon animals for kids - which he then pops. He's also fond of using his freeze ray on anyone in line at the coffee shop, just so he can get his mocha in a timely manner.
Gru, however, is being outshined by uber-nerd Vector (Jason Segal), an upstart on the villainy scene with a penchant for making guns that shoot squids or piranhas. With his nasally voice and appearance that suggests an evil Bill Gates, Vector has stolen the spotlight from Gru by absconding with an Egyptian pyramid - which he has replaced with an inflatable one, in the film's opening gag. Poor Gru, berated by his mother (a growling Julie Andrews) returns home to his lair and informs his army of minions - little yellow beings that look like Cheetos with eyes - that he will reclaim his glory by shrinking and stealing the moon.
Unfortunately, a little trouble getting a loan from the Bank of Evil and the inclusion of three darling orphan girls tend to complicate Gru's plans.Just writing out "Despicable Me's" plot has me chuckling and, indeed, a comedy about the life of a James Bondian super-villain is filled with comedic potential.
Directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud find some fun gags in creating Gru as an evil mastermind living in suburbia, particularly in the film's opening sequence. There's great visual wit on display in Gru's and Vector's lairs, particularly with a shark roaming under the floor at the latter. And there are a couple of moments when the film's dark humor comes through, as when one of the orphans steps into a dart-filled sarcophagus with a juice box, leading to a surprising and hilariously dark sight gag.
Since "Shrek" appeared 10 years ago, computer-generated comedies have been go-to ground for comedians, although many of the films tend to use those talents simply to create animated versions of the funnymen and women. "Despicable Me's" strongest asset is that the actors are allowed to disappear into their roles and have fun with the characters instead of playing the same roles they've been placed in throughout their live-action careers. With his Eastern European accent and grumpy demeanor, Carrell is farthest away from "The Office" that he's ever been and it allows him to create a character we wouldn't normally see from the actor. This may also be the only film kids are able to see featuring Russell Brand, who elicits a few chuckles as Gru's henchman Dr. Nefario. I wasn't even aware Andrews was the voice of Gru's mom until I saw the credits.
Coming so soon after the near-perfect "Toy Story 3," it can feel like a bit of a letdown to realize "Despicable Me" doesn't have the emotion or depth these stories sometime surprise us with. Unlike Pixar's masterpieces, "Despicable Me" is paced more like a Looney Tunes episode, veering from gag to gag at breakneck speed, and more concerned with making audiences laugh than making them think.
More often than not, the film is successful, particularly when focusing on the bizarre, mischievous minions employed by Gru. Kids will love the slapstick pratfalls and there are plenty of jokes aimed squarely at adults (the Lehman Brothers gag will cause grownups to chuckle) to keep everyone entertained. Like too many of the Dreamworks films, however, "Despicable Me" depends too much on fart jokes and pop culture humor to keep it afloat, and never really embraces its dark side as much as it could. There's a Tim Burton/Charles Addams vibe that wants to come out and play, but it keeps being shoved to the side in favor of tired catch phrases and random dance sequences. The result is a film that is entertaining and pleasant, but never really hits its full potential. A shame, because the voice talent is so committed and the visual artistry on display is so fun. There are a few moments where the film unfolds with a "Spy Vs. Spy" anarchy, only to be reined in by storytelling conventions.
I will say, however, that "Despicable Me" tends to be one of the few successful uses of 3D in recent months. Animated films, which can be made expressly for the format, are usually better at incorporating the technology and "Despicable Me" has fun with the gimmick. Audiences who shell out extra for the feature will be rewarded with one of the more enjoyable end credits features of the summer.
Kids will likely get a kick out of "Despicable Me," and enjoy its zany humor and slapstick gags. Adults will probably be entertained but wonder when the movie's going to surprise them. It's no "Toy Story 3," but really, few movies this year can be. But thankfully, it's no "Shrek 4" either.
Originally published in the July 11, 2010 edition of The Source.