Opens Fri., July 9
Studio execs are overly concerned with keeping their protagonists likable, so don’t get too worried that Gru, the antihero of the 3-D toon Despicable Me , is a true baddie. There’s simply no way he won’t get softened up by some adorable moppet(s), just like the curmudgeon/asshole leads of Tsotsi , Three Men and a Baby , Kolya and, less crappily, Bad Santa . Sure enough, it takes less than a reel for Gru—a supervillain, we’re told, although he’s more into grand heists than serious evil—to run afoul of a trio of adorable orphans. When these little girls with massive eyes prove instrumental in his plan to steal the moon, he tries to maintain his misanthropic cool, but even evildoers who look like Uncle Fester and speak in an excitable, unplaceable Eastern European accent can only stay Grinch-y for so long.
Credit where credit is due: Despicable Me is consistently loopy, with guns that shoot octopi, shrunken elephants, spider cookies and Gru’s minions—a horde of yellow, babbling whatzits always on hand to bring the cute. What’s more, in an era when studios lean hard on celebrity voices to distract from so-so material, the vocal cast—mostly Apatow clan members, plus Julie Andrews—actually do voices, not just “Will Smith as a shark!” laziness. As Gru, Steve Carrell does a pretty good impersonation of John Lithgow in Buckaroo Banzai , while you might not even recognize Jason Segel (as Gru’s nerdy, tracksuited rival) or Russell Brand (as a geriatric Brit).
Unlike most non-Pixar feature-length toons, Despicable Me suggests its makers actually gave a shit, with striking character design and a minimum of sentiment and shitty Shrek humor.
Alas, there's also a minimum of hard yuks. Despicable Me is more twisted than most kiddie pics—the orphanage punishes naughty kids by imprisoning them in a sad cardboard box—but still plays it safe for today’s overprotective parents. Above the cut it may be, but Futurama , in the episode where Bender buys out an orphanage, planning to sell the kids to a Chinese restaurant, did this with infinitely more laughs in 20 minutes and two dimensions.