In DESPICABLE ME, the direct honesty of childhood innocence, in the form of three orphan girls, goes head to head with the evil machinations of a super villain feeling his evil competition nipping at his heels, usually with marine life. The result is a smart, funny, and perceptive animated film that dresses up its unabashed sentimentality with a droll mix of dry humor, deadpan slapstick, and clever writing that is slick, wicked, but never snooty. There is even a fart joke thrown in, and one that is cute rather than gross for its own sake.
The super villain is Gru (Steve Carrell), an uncomfortably proportioned man with a nose that transcends the merely beaklike, and a need for the attention his emotionally thwarting mother (Julie Andrews) never gave him as a child. It’s made him behave badly, as well as making him an aggressive parallel parker. After a series of brilliant capers, including making off with the Jumbotron in Times Square, his top ranking in the world of evil is being threatened by a newcomer with the savvy and the moxie to make off with an Egyptian pyramid. Not one of the little ones scattered around the countryside, either, but one of the big three. Faced with the Ban of Evil, in the person of his personal banker (Will Arnett), suddenly reluctant to fund his schemes, and Vector (Jason Segal), an annoyingly geeky competitor in a track suit and bowl haircut edging him out for the bank’s loans, he decides to go for his big dream, the one he’s had since he was a small child, the one that involves stealing the moon and selling it to the highest bidder. All he needs is the shrink-ray that Vector has stolen from him, and the aid of three orphan girls, no-nonsense Margo (Amanda Cosgrove), hat-bedecked Edith (Dana Gaier), and unicorn-loving toddler Agnes (Elsie Fisher), to penetrate Vector’s shark-infested lair.
Vector’s weakness is the coconut cookies the girls sell. The girls’ weakness is wanting to escape Miss Hattie’s Home for Girls, where sales quotas and the Box of Shame take the place of nurturing from Miss Hattie (Kristen Wiig). Gru adopts the girls, confuses taking care of them with raising puppies, and quickly discovers that stealing the moon, even with the aid of the ancient, bat-eared Dr. Nefarious (Russell Brand), is simple compared to controlling three kids, even with the help of Gru’s army of giddily gleefully obedient minions. That’s when he discovers that his weakness is the only slightly semi-conditional love the kids offer him. Carrell’s voice work deserves an award for the way it uses a brew of eastern European accents to blend vulnerability, evil, and deadly comic timing.
There is a playful sense of imagination behind all this, daring mid-air rescues, a hearing problem that leads to a chorus line of disco-dancing mini-robots, and best exemplified by those goggled, pod-like yellow minions. They are a horde of ebullient delight evincing serene equanimity at being shrunken, childlike wonder at the bubbles in a water cooler, and only the mildest of irritation over being blown up by a fellow minion, all as they burble away with generally incomprehensible mutterings. There is also a playful subtlety to Gru’s characterization, with a two-story car that overcompensates for much, a house is the dark blight of his otherwise sunny suburban block, and a beloved pet that looks like an anglerfish on paws with dicey fur and cluttered teeth. As for the animation, it is flawless, making a roller coaster ride as vertiginous in 3-D as it is in 2-D, and allowing Gru’s face to be ghoulish and sweet at the same time.
In Gru, DESPICABLE ME has invented a tale of character redemption on par with that of Ebenezer Scrooge, with considerably less treacle, but ultimately, just as much heart. Yet, it has taken a bracingly hip, not maudlin, approach to being the enchanting entertainment that it is.