Going in to these 3-D cartoon movies now, you worry. It’s not for fear that the movies will be infantilizing. Lots of movies are infantilizing. Even 2-D movies that are not cartoons are infantilizing. And sometimes that’s even OK. Sometimes being infantilized is just the thing you need from a movie. But going into these cartoon movies now, with their urgent insistence on 3-D and their bright, loud, advance merchandise marketing, you worry that you’ll come out more or less empty-handed, entertainment-wise. You figure any given movie in particular probably will be a disgrace to movies in general.
What a disappointed romantic you are. You may be pleased to learn that “Despicable Me” is here for you. And for your children. “Despicable Me” has your interests in mind; clever and crafty, if not quite inspired, it does at least manage not to be a disgrace. And it is a handful, entertainment-wise — maybe even more so than you might expect going in to a 3-D cartoon movie now.
As you would expect, it’s less about story per se than about the execution of a concept: an aging evil genius (voiced by Steve Carell) doing battle with his pointedly younger, more heavily fortified rival (voiced by Jason Segel). And, like many an empathetic cartoon aggressor before him, Carell’s grumpy Gru is not really evil, of course. Yes, he has a talent for villainy. He drives a huge, environmentally unfriendly vehicle, and uses his freeze ray to cut the line at the local coffee shop. He makes balloon animals for young tots on the street, if only to behold little fallen faces when then he pops them. The thing is, he’s just disappointed. Frustrated. Tired.
Pitting this fellow against Segel’s Vector — a bratty, spoiled dork resembling the young Bill Gates — gives a cheeky impression of major evildoers as overgrown, under-supervised children. But Gru also is ambitious, and if taking down his nemesis requires the unwitting assistance of three little girls from the local orphanage, so be it. What the otherwise clever curmudgeon fails to consider, however, is that the girls will present their own problems, beginning with a triple threat of wit, heart, and manipulatively darling big eyes.
Aside from his own indifferent mother (voiced by Julie Andrews, surprisingly, delightfully), Gru doesn’t have much in the way of family. He does have his minions, collectively an adorable (and, yes, merchandisable) horde of slapstick-happy green-yellow gumdrops with eyes (some have only one eye), who do construction work and do each other and themselves much bodily harm. And he has an aged, perpetually goggled laboratory accomplice, Dr. Nefario (voiced by Russell Brand), who in the manner of James Bond’s Q supplies his weapons. Sometimes Nefario mishears Gru’s instructions and winds up devising only the most ludicrous and impractical contraptions. This could make for a good running gag, but it gets neglected, more or less abandoned to the multitudinous cuteness of the minions.
Otherwise, the movie seems to warm up as it goes. Writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, working from a story by executive producer Sergio Pablos, specialize in the brisk and funny business of Gru reluctantly allowing kids into his life. Soon enough the real conflict arises, and it’s pretty much the usual career-versus-family conundrum: He’s got a tight schedule to keep if he’s going to shrink and steal the moon to show the world what he’s really capable of, but those three sweethearts he adopted under false pretenses will be having their dance recital at the same time. You know how it goes, right?
It is to the film’s advantage, for the most part, that directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin tend more toward the visual than the verbal. They have designed “Despicable Me” well, with an overall style that’s both aesthetically sensitive and inherently amusing. That said, it’s also nice to know what Carell can do without his face — in this case, by reveling in that nonthreatening, nonspecific European evil-genius accent.
“You will not cry or sneeze or barf or fart!” Gru shouts at his girls. “No annoying sounds!” Might he also be addressing so many denominator-lowering studio suits on behalf of the weary audiences they reflexively refuse to respect? Well, anyway, it’s also just silly and funny, and doesn’t that warm your cynical heart even just a little bit?