Silver Screen: Despicable Me **1/2
The bad guys get top billing in the moderately entertaining computer-animated family comedy Despicable Me, which features the voice of Steve Carell as Gru, a kind-of criminal mastermind going soft in his old age.
Gru, who looks like the Batman villain the Penguin with bad posture and a crash diet, has been terrorizing the world for years, but with increasingly little effect. In his last pair of capers he stole the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower-- both, in this case, the miniature replicas from Las Vegas.
The wind gets taken out of Gru's dastardly sails when he's upstaged by Vector (Jason Segel), a schlubby new villain who pulls off the significant feat of swiping one of the great pyramids and replacing it with an inflatable replica. Not one to be outdone, Gru swipes a shrink ray and attempts his most daring heist yet: He'll build a rocket, fly to the moon, shrink it, and steal it.
To snag the shrink ray he must pretend to adopt a trio of plucky orphan girls and use them as pawns in his scheme. Of course, this being a kids' cartoon-- and not a terribly imaginative one-- the sneering supervillain is unmanned by the tots' cuteness and finds himself distracted from evildoing by the ordeals of pretending to be a father.
The most interesting aspect of Despicable Me is the absence of good guys. Neither Gru nor Vector has a do-gooder foil. There are no superheroes, just wily supercrooks, and society is pretty much at their mercy. This preempts the obvious move toward favoring the lovable, bumbling villain over the smug, perfect protector-- what appears to be the formula for the upcoming, similar-sounding Will Ferrell/Brad Pitt-voiced feature-length toon Megamind-- and recalls the zany, amoral battles of Mad's Spy versus Spy.
Despicable Me is awfully light on plot. The story is barely enough to fill forty-five minutes, much less the hour-and-a-half it runs, so, either by necessity or intention, the movie becomes more an interlinked series of cartoon sketches. Some are better than others-- and all are better than the roller-coaster sequence, which seems to exist only to service the otherwise ho-hum 3D-- but none of them are particularly inventive. The best scenes are reminiscent of classic Warner Brothers shorts, but nary a one comes close to capturing the visual audacity or conceptual weirdness of the work of Tex Avery or Chuck Jones, and as the movie wears on, these sequences feel increasingly like filler.
Most of the laughs are generated by Gru's seemingly endless supply of minions, who look like oversized, anthropomorphic gel capsules. Codirectors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud wisely never attempt to explain what the hell these things are or where they come from, instead letting them speak in unintelligible babble and engage in a series of sight gags.
The notion of an animated feature that is more a string of interwoven short films is an interesting one, but unfortunately, the filmmakers-- including Coffin and Renaud and screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (who wrote Horton Hears a Who! and the skeleton in Jake Gyllenhaal's closet, Bubble Boy)-- lack the imagination to make it work. Instead they overlook essential opportunities for more interesting scenes (Gru's childhood, Vector's family ties to the criminal underworld) and pack the movie full of butt-shots, fart gags, and toilet references. It's lowest-common-denominator humor for an audience too young to yet know what a lowest common denominator is. It's a shame, too, because in its brighter moments, Despicable Me promises a lot more.