I'll admit, prior to seeing Despicable Me, I was certain that this was going to be a failure of Shrek 3-like proportions. The advertisements were everywhere, and not just in the past few weeks. For months on end, I have been subjected to ad after ad after ad for Despicable Me, and despite this, I still had no clue as to what the movie was actually about. Every trailer and TV spot seemed to promote an entirely different movie. Was it about a criminal mastermind, the world's worst supervillain, or a lonely curmudgeon taking in three orphans? As it turns out, Despicable Me is about all three, and astonishingly, takes all these disparate strands and weaves them together.
Gru (voice of Steve Carrell) is a supervillain in a world full of them (although we only ever see two), and he's not the best at his job. Yes, he can be generally unpleasant (a funny exchange with a balloon animal at the beginning provides the evidence for this), but his grand schemes often fall far short of greatness. Things get worse when new villain Vector (Jason Segel) steps onto the scene, garnering international press for stealing one of Egypt's famed pyramids. Gru, never one to take things lying down, plans on stealing the moon, but his plans are foiled by Vector, who steals a shrink ray integral to Gru's plans. Gru, ever determined, adopts three small girls so they can sell Vector cookies and thus gain Gru entrance. However, Gru doesn't count on the girls worming their way into his black heart.
Despicable Me is the first major CGI animated film from Universal Studios, so it's understandable that they would advertise this movie like there's tomorrow. But for the countless ads, they have all utterly failed to communicate the comfortable charm of this surprisingly enjoyable flick. Unlike many animated films, this one is by relative newcomers, and it's clear they're still finding their way. The first act of Despicable Me runs too slow and is too light on good gags. And despite taking the time to set up much of the world, there are still a lot of questions left unanswered (who are the other villains in this world that is supposedly full of them, how does the Evil Bank get a return on its investment?). Gru takes some time to warm up to, although his minions, little yellow jelly-bean looking servants, delight the moment they hit the screen. Once we've established the players and the plot, however, things really pick up.
The second act is the heart of Despicable Me, showing both the development of his plans to steal the moon and the burgeoning relationship with his newly adopted daughters. There's nary a misstep in this section, with hilarious turns from Carrell, Russell Brand as his inventor Dr. Nefario, the children and the minions. There's a delightfully twisted sense of humor on display as well, with a mean streak hardly seen in a kid's film. There's at least one death I can think of (played for humor, of course), and child cruelty (the woman who runs the orphanage puts the kids in a "Box of Shame" if they don't meet their cookie selling-quota), and Gru engages in multiple forms of antisocial behavior that is often hilarious in its audacity.
Another wonderful aspect of the picture is that voice cast. Like every animated film these days, the cast list is replete with big name live action stars, a practice I have long condemned. Too often these actors don't bother to even do a voice, simply reading the lines as they always do (see the upcoming Megamind for an excellent example of every single character sounding exactly like their live-action counterpart), and stealing work from truly talented voice actors, who more and more are relegated to television. And to make things worse, I find I spend more of my time trying to figure out who is doing what voice instead of simply enjoying the film. However, in this case, the filmmakers go out of their way to mask the voices, letting the performances shine through. Steve Carrell wraps himself in a thick Eastern European accent, as does Julie Andrews, almost unrecognizable as Gru's mother. Russell Brand's voice is so low and thick as Dr. Nefarious that I wonder if it's been digitally altered, and even Will Arnett sounds a little different than he normally does. Jason Segel is perhaps the revelation of the group, doing a voice so different from his usual sound that I was surprised to discover he was the man behind it. Kudos to the filmmakers for making these actors actually work for their paychecks.
Despicable Me's third act can't quite compare to the second, but by the time the climax occurs, you care enough about the characters that it doesn't matter. Still, the movie's oddities linger in the brain, such as its pre-occupation with dance sequences (although I should point out that the film thankfully keeps the inclusion of pre-existing pop songs to a minimum, keeping the movie out of cringe-worthy Dreamworks' pop culture reference territory). It's not a movie I could say I loved, but it has heart (also thankfully not in the form of audience manipulating, tear-jerking theatrics), a truly different sense of humor, and a unique style all its own. Having more in common with the excellent Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs than anything Pixar or Dreamworks has done, Despicable Me is a pleasant surprise that has been poorly marketed.
A note about the 3D: A ton of films have come out in 3D lately. Looking to capitalize on a trend after the runaway success of Avatar, several movies never intended for 3D have found themselves suddenly forced into the medium through post-production conversion, resulting in many subpar or downright aggravating 3D presentations (I'm looking at you Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender). Even Toy Story 3, designed from the ground up to be 3D, didn't take advantage of the possibilities offered. Despicable Me, on the other hand, is easily the best 3D I've seen since How To Train Your Dragon, although it doesn't reach the heights of that particular picture. Still, given a choice between the 2D and the 3D, I can only recommend seeing it in the third dimension.