Andy Bockelman: ‘Despicable Me’ mixes cuteness and ray guns with good results
July 21, 2010
3 out of 4 stars
Starring the voices of: Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Miranda Cosgrove and Julie Andrews.
Now playing at the West Theatre.
What if Daddy Warbucks had made Little Orphan Annie sleep in a hollowed-out antique bomb and gave her a piece of old newspaper to use as a bathroom.
Would the sun still come out tomorrow?
Probably so, but if the anti-hero of the cartoon "Despicable Me" had the chance, he'd try to swipe the celestial body.
In the world of super-villainy, there is no one like Gru (voice of Steve Carell). The bald loner, working out of a suburban base of operations, has made a name for himself by stealing a variety of the world's landmarks, among them the Times Square Jumbotron, and the Las Vegas replicas of the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.
But his next plan is his greatest yet. He's going to steal — pause for dramatic effect — the moon!
However, competition from a younger master thief named Vector (Jason Segel) has Gru badly in need of a Plan B. As part of his machinations, he takes in three orphan sisters — level-headed Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), rambunctious Edith (Dana Gaier) and daydreaming unicorn-lover Agnes (Elsie Fisher).
But suddenly having parenthood thrust upon him gives Gru new hassles such as detours to ballet class and amusement parks, and having to read inane bedtime stories. Still, the more the girls interrupt his day-to-day life of villainy, the more he realizes that he actually cares about them.
Nice guy Carell perhaps isn't the first person you'd think of to fill the role of high-profile criminal, but when he equips himself with the proper faux Eastern European accent, you'd swear he was James Bond's Ernst Blofeld.
But, Gru's transformation from baddie to daddy isn't all that much of a switch since this crook has quite a bit of goodness in him that's only undone by moments of nastiness. He blows up balloon animals for sad little kids — and immediately pops them — and he contributes to the tip jar at his favorite coffee house — after using a freeze ray on everybody else in line.
Segel is a hoot as nasal nerd Vector, an overgrown rich boy with too much time on his hands and a Bill Gates haircut and a pear-shaped body to complete the look of absolute techno-geek. Though, admittedly, the orange warm-up suit does look stylish, and the shark tank he has in his living room is pretty awesome.
Weaponry such as the Piranha Gun and the Squid Launcher, not so much.
Russell Brand is fine as Dr. Nefario, Gru's decrepit engineer in all things mechanical, though stealing the show with no trouble are Gru's minions (Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud, Jemaine Clement), an army of weird, jabbering, knee-high creatures wearing goggles and overalls that look like they're related to Twinkie the Kid, all of whom are hilarious whether they're singing "Copacabana" or blowing up everything in sight.
This decidedly bizarre update of "Annie" takes some getting used to, but it quickly finds the right footing to be a feel-good story and still have the necessary amount of bite that people have come to expect from animated movies these days. No, we're not talking about the choppers of Gru's terrifying mutant dog Kyle, rather the amount of mean-spiritedness you can have in a kid's movie without it missing the mark.
Conversely, it's not, as Agnes describes her favorite stuffed animal, "so fluffy, you're gonna die." With Gru's malicious mother (Julie Andrews) providing a constant stream of negativity, it's easy to see that this villain just wants to be loved, but that doesn't mean he has to like it.
That reluctance to succumb to sweetness is exactly what makes this cartoon work the way it does, although all of the pointless extra content, such as the 3-D-oriented angles and Best Buy's downloadable cell phone programs to translate the mumblings of the minions, are things we could all do without.
You don't need the extras to enjoy "Despicable Me," although for people who like paying the extra fee for the special glasses, hey, live large, folks. As for translating the minion-speak, did it occur to the marketing team that not understanding the little buggers is what makes them funny?
As Gru might say when he gets a good, if fairly obvious, idea: "Light bulb."
As the rest of us might say: "Duh."