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Working without apology from the Pixar game book, Universal’s first 3D-animated movie, “Despicable Me,” captures much of what one likes about Pixar cartoons. Starting with a cute yellow creature who appears before the opening credits mimicking Pixar’s bouncy table lamp, “Despicable” adopts the Pixar principle that all things which populate a child’s fantasia — whether toys on a bed, monsters in dreams or the robots and superheroes of science fiction — are very, very real.
So in this twist on “The Incredibles,” a story about superheroes longing for the quiet life, “Despicable” takes a playful poke at supervillains. Wouldn’t you know, they turn out to be poor fellows beset with Mommy and Daddy issues.
“Despicable” doesn’t measure up to Pixar at its best. Nonetheless, it’s funny, clever and warmly animated with memorable characters. This first animated feature from Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment since it set up shop at Universal in 2007 looks like an all-around winner. Made by French special effects house Mac Guff Ligne, the CGI cartoon starts a rollout in North America and some European territories next month that should pick up ample coin around the globe based on its appeal to all ages.
The film’s comedy lies in a clash of opposites: a supervillain who loves to mess with everyone while committing high-profile crimes versus three little orphan girls whose wills are every bit as strong as his. Mind you, this supervillain, who goes by the name of Gru, is only marginally successful at villainy. As the banker who finances supervillains in their nefarious schemes points out, Gru’s sinister plots “don’t turn a profit.”
Which hurts Gru’s feelings.
Casting well-known actors for the voices in cartoons has its pros and cons. But when a star gives a performance as delectable as Steve Carell does with Gru, it’s very much worth it. Even as Gru issues threats, plots dastardly deeds and pops a child’s balloon, Carell hints at the little boy lost within this blackened soul. His evil deeds are a cry for attention, and his thickly accented voice — but what accent is that, exactly? — articulates a personality struggling to manage his own injured ego.
You see, some villain out there has overshadowed Gru. Some villain has stolen an Egyptian pyramid! Flushed with shame and outrage, Gru vows to steal the moon. That’s right, the moon. All he needs is a shrink-ray gun. Acquiring this weapon should be an easy task for a supervillain, but, oops, just as Gru steals it, someone else steals it away from him.
This someone turns out to be his nemesis, Vector (Jason Segel). Supervillains can have bad days, too, apparently, and Gru is having a doozy. Gru’s unsupportive, sarcastic mom (Julie Andrews, would you believe?) doesn’t make things any easier, either.
In a somewhat unconvincing plot turn, Gru becomes convinced the solution to his Vector problem lies in three adorable orphan girls, whom he quickly adopts. The bespectacled Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) is the trio’s sensible, strong-willed ringleader, but Agnes (Elsie Fisher) and Edith (Dana Gaier) are no less staunch in their insistence that their new “father” should take them to ballet class, ride a roller coaster and read bedtime stories.
The film is overrun with colorful characters. Gru’s assistant, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), is like James Bond’s Q, a genius at inventing devices. But his hearing isn’t always acute. So when asked to design a dart gun, he concocts something that sounds like dart, only the word begins with an “f.”
Gru is surrounded with an army of tireless little Minions. Indeed, that was a Minion one saw before the opening credits, the one that looked like a miniature Gumby but in yellow not green. These fellows mean well but aren’t always as efficient as Gru would like. Meanwhile, Vector — a nerdy and hugely ambitious rookie supervillain, drawn to look a little like Bill Gates — makes a most irritating thorn in Gru’s side.
Where “Despicable” falls short of Pixar glory is its predictably. From moment to moment, one can never guess where a Pixar cartoon is headed. Here, it’s all too clear. But individual sequences and fresh characters dreamed up by writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio (from a story by executive producer Sergio Pablos) are quite wonderful.
The animation overseen by directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin gets an A for energy, imagination and color. And Gru might be the most interesting cartoon bad guy since “Ratatouille’s” Angon Ego. Come to think of it, Ego had childhood issues, too.
Opens: Friday, July 9 (Universal)
Production: Illumination Entertainment
Cast: Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Kristen Wiig, Elsie Fisher, Will Arnett, Danny McBride, Jemaine Clement, Miranda Cosgrove, Jack McBrayer, Julie Andrews, Dana Gaier
Directors: Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin
Screenwriters: Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio
Story by: Sergio Pablos
Producers: Chris Meledandri, John Cohen, Janet Healy
Executive producers: Nina Rowan, Sergio Pablos
Production designer: Yarrow Cheney
Music: Pharrell Williams, Heitor Pereira
Editors: Gregory Peter, Pam Ziegenhagen
Rated PG, 95 minutes
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