After the intense emotional workout of Toy Story 3 where many young children were too scared to stay for the end, and some of those who did asked, "Daddy, was that a holocaust?" parents and kids may be looking for an animated feature that's low-maintenance, good-looking and mildly original, and won't plant lingering traumas in the psyches of the wee ones. Despicable Me fills that bill.
It's the story of a world-class supervillain named Gru (voiced by Steve Carell in a fake, menacing Eastern European accent), whose conception of evil is little-boy mischievousness. Yes, he likes to torture kids say, by popping their animal balloon with a pin but only after amusing them: creating the animal balloon he intends to pop. And now, as Gru tells his army of minions tiny, goggled yellow marshmallow creatures who are loyal but not too bright he plans to steal the moon by shrinking it. Lately, though, he's been dwarfed in nastiness by dweebish young Vector (Jason Segel), who managed to swipe the Great Pyramid at Giza. Until Gru proves he's No. 1, the Bank of Evil won't give him a loan. So he adopts three orphan sisters to infiltrate Vector's laboratory on the pretense of selling him Girl Scout cookies. They, of course, are the adversaries he really has to worry about. While he's shooting and shrinking the moon, they could find a villain's heart and warm it.
Even in this brief synopsis, and even if you're a kid, you will detect echoes in Gru of Dr. Seuss's Grinch and a dozen other cartoon touchstones. The accent and comic-villain attitude are reminiscent of Boris Badenov and Snidely Whiplash from Jay Ward's classic TV cartoon The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. (Vector is a snottier version of Mr. Peabody's boy, Sherman.) The light impudence of the film's wit harks back to Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes, as when a sign proclaims that the Bank of Evil is "formerly Lehman Brothers." (I would have loved it if the sign had said "a.k.a. Goldman Sachs," but satire, when bankrolled by a major studio, can go only so far.) The very word despicable is a tribute to Daffy, the Warner cartoon duck, who immortally mispronounced it in the 1951 Rabbit Fire. ("You're dethpickable! And, and, and pickable!")
The movie marks Universal Studios' first serious attempt to board the CGI-animation gravy train that has poured zillions into the coffers of Pixar, DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox's Blue Sky the team that made the Ice Age movies and Horton Hears a Who!. Chris Meledandri, who supervised the Blue Sky unit, is over at Universal now. With him, he took Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, the Horton screenwriters, to expand on an idea by Spanish animator Sergio Pablos. Meledandri handed the directing chores to Blue Sky veteran Chris Renaud and the French animator Pierre Coffin. The movie was developed by this Spanish-Franco-American team.
That explains the movie's Euro feel: its lithe simplicity of line, its occasionally noirish palette, its pointy rather than round character shapes. Despicable Me has continental cousins the Czech animation style of the 1950s and '60s and, from 2003, Sylvain Chomet's Oscar-nominated The Triplets of Belleville at least as close as its more obvious American kin. For their graphic inspiration the filmmakers cite Charles Addams and Edward Gorey, who are among the most European of comic draftsmen, and Cuban artist Antonio Prohías' Mad magazine series "Spy vs. Spy." (They might also have mentioned the Mad cartoonist Sergio Aragones and his comic-book barbarian "Groo the Wanderer.") No wonder that in the central conflict of Gru vs. Vector essentially a replay of the Cold War arms race the sympathy goes not to the power-mad young American, who seems like a deranged version of Bill Gates, but to the old man with the Soviet-bloc voice and the Euro-couture of turtlenecks and jaunty scarves.
Kids won't be frightened by the movie (rated PG for fart jokes), but they may take to heart the parent problems each of the main characters has to endure. Gru's villainy is traced to a lifetime of lovelessness from his mother (Julie Andrews!), so mean and demeaning she'd turn any child into a monster. Vector has become an evil genius in an attempt to please his father. Neither can do much to improve their sad parental situations. Not so the orphans, for whom Gru is their new adoptive daddy. Rather than charm the beast, they pretty much hound him into a recognizably human form. They are the Whos to Gru's Grinch, and by the end of the movie it's Christmas.
This is an agreeable confection with a few soft spots. Carell's singsong accent twists his dialogue amusingly by shouting in the middle of sentences, but he also is stranded by wan retorts "Oh, come on!" "You have got to be kidding me!" "I hate that guy!" that the DreamWorks writing staff would have punched up with some vernacular sparkle. But whenever the plot goes limp, Despicable Me falls back on the minions, Gru's geek chorus. They're the ones who cue the audience to the absurdity of their master's malevolence, cheering when he shouts, "We stole the statue of Liberty!", then issuing a collective sigh of disappointment when he adds, "The small one, from Las Vegas." Like Skrat in the Ice Age movies, or the penguins in Madagascar, these adorable scene-stealers probably deserve their own spin-off feature. Universal may not have a franchise movie in this very pickable cartoon comedy, but they certainly have franchise minions.