When it comes to animated features, Universal’s taken a different path than Disney or DreamWorks. Rather than produce animation in-house, the studio’s made the wise decision (for them at least) of acquiring or financing animated features from independent studios – no overhead, low risk. While The Tale of Desperaux was a mixed bag (let’s be honest, it was a bit of a mess – who the hell was that vegetable man, for one?), Despicable Me is a neat and snazzy treat. This time Universal has a definite contender for a Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination. (I think we all should just agree right now that Pixar will win again for Toy Story 3 and instead handicap which films will snag the other four slots.)
For one, they’ve got Steve Carrel voicing (in the richest mock-Russian accent since Boris Badenov) Gru, the not-entirely despicable supervillain of the title. Gru’s lost a bit of his mojo and has to deal with competition from Vector (voiced by Jason Segel), a pot-bellied punk kid out to claim the number-one spot for himself. Fortunately their crimes seem to be confined to mega-pranks like stealing an entire Egyptian pyramid (no one seems to notice it sitting in Vector’s back yard, painted sky blue) or mischief like Gru flash-freezing the line in front of him for his morning coffee.
It’s a given that the three lovable orphans he adopts to further his battle with Vector will melt Gru’s heart - don’t expect any surprises in that department. The fun’s in what happens along the way, like Gru returning from an amusement park outing with the girls with his face painted up like a bunny rabbit and his inner child re-awakened.
The film’s production design is brilliantly executed, contrasting Gru’s nuts-and-bolts heavy metal contraptions against Vector’s curvy, ultra-modern glossy white hardware. (His lair could have been designed by Wall-E’s Eve.) Personally though, Gru’s crocodile-shaped couch, the one with comfy red cushions where its stomach should be is more my style.
Vector runs a one-man show, humiliating his rival via a keyboard he plays air guitar with, but Gru is assisted by hundreds of ‘minions’ – little pill-shaped, goggle- and overalls-wearing characters who slug each other around, speak in cartoon gibberish and fill the movie with countless sight gags. (My favorite: the minion who gets activated like a glow stick when Gru and his friends are navigating a dark tunnel.) I’d like to see these guys go up against Wonka’s Oompa-Loompas or Star Wars’ Jawas – those other fellows wouldn’t stand a chance.
Curiously, and in spite of its overall fresh look, Despicable Me’s character designs seem less than 100% original: in profile and wardrobe Gru bears more than a bit of resemblance to the Addams Family’s Uncle Fester, evil genius Vector might be a long-lost cousin of Dexter’s Laboratory evil genius Mandark, and Mr. Perkins, the nasty, pointy-haired boss of the Bank of Evil (“formerly Lehman Brothers”) is a ringer for Dilbert’s clueless, pointy-haired boss.
Mere quibbles though; Fester could never utter a cheerful “liiightbulb!” the way Gru does when a brilliant idea occurs to him, and Mandark probably never attempted to shrink and steal the moon out of the sky in a desperate attempt to prove himself to his mother.
Despicable Me takes it easy on the 3D effects; the show-offiest moment in the film is when the pointy nose of Gru’s rocketship practically pokes your eye out as it comes to rest after a crash landing. That’s in the movie itself, actually. If you’re there for a 3D blow-out, hang around for the closing credits and the minions will happily provide you with enough ‘in your face’ 3D to last until… until the next 3D movie you go to see, which is probably playing on the screen next door.