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Review: Despicable Me

Grand theft: the kids are all right
By PETER KEOUGH  |  July 9, 2010
3.0 3.0 Stars

 

Despicable Me | Directed by Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin | Written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio | with Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Will Arnett, Danny McBride, Jack McBrayer, and Julie Andrews | Universal Pictures | 95 minutes
First-time directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin and the other filmmakers behind this slight but engaging kids' animated comedy have no ambitions to be original, but like their villainous hero, Gru (voiced by a borscht-accented Steve Carell), they insist on stealing only from the best. That means Pixar, for starters, and you can spend idle time ferreting out the many borrowings: Monsters, Inc, Up, Toy Story 1-3 all have had their pockets picked. But the most important element that these guys have lifted from the foremost animation studio is its attitude toward its audience, which includes adults as well as children. They show respect — for people's intelligence, for their sense of humor, for their preference of honesty to treacle.

These are qualities demonstrated, paradoxically, by Gru himself, who in keeping with the film's freewheeling plagiarism is a dead ringer for Uncle Fester in the original Charles Addams cartoons. He also shares the same inverted family values, which include a house in the suburbs that looks like Salvador Dalí's, a penchant for morbid furniture, a good-natured sadism, and a career ambition to become the world's greatest criminal. Down in his basement, a vast complex turns out the gizmos needed for this purpose. Resembling the underground factory in Metropolis, it's manned by yellow, phallic, sometimes monocular humanoids not unlike the one-eyed blue B.O.B. in Monsters vs. Aliens, or the three-eyed Pizza Planet aliens from the Toy Story movies. They're hard at work preparing for Gru's latest, and greatest, scheme: stealing the moon.

Gru is not ideal parenting material, one would think. Nonetheless, in order to overcome his arch-rival, Vector (Jason Segel), who's already upped the evil ante by stealing the Great Pyramid in the film's surreal opening sequence, Gru adopts three willful, cookie-selling orphans — Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Agnes (Elsie Fisher), and Edith (Dana Gaier) — whom he hopes can help him infiltrate Vector's fortress so he can get his hands on the shrinking ray gun he'll need for the lunar heist. No fawning over kids for this guy: he's given them a dog dish filled with candy and fresh newspapers for housebreaking purposes, and at bedtime he tucks them into the shell casings of presumably defunct 500-pound bombs.

The children, of course, love it. They also appreciate, as does the audience, Gru's droll, vaguely sadistic denials of their needs and demands, denials made all the more amusing by Carell's impeccable timing and flaky improvisations.

The inevitable downfall of such scenarios is that the cute urchins transform the most intransigent adult into a steaming pile of mawkish, parenting cliché. Not so much here, however, though Gru's bumbling, Q-like sidekick, the evil scientist Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), intervenes when he thinks Gru has become too "distracted" by the kids from the mission. That results in a climactic sequence unfortunately reminiscent of Up.

To his credit, Dr. Nefario is responsible for the freshest, funniest fart joke I've seen in a long time. But the conventional resolution, as well as some weary "adult" allusions to Taxi Driver, The Godfather, and Lehman Brothers, and a kvetching, Gary Larson–like mother (Julie Andrews) to fill in Gru's backstory, are reminders that all kids' films aren't from Pixar — though they don't have to be hairballs like Furry Vengeance, either.

  Topics: Reviews , Entertainment, Movies, Jason Segel,  More more >
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