For the first half an hour of Despicable Me, one has high hopes for its flashy, forceful characters and the twisted universe they inhabit. However, those with an appetite for characters and events that are truly despicable might be left wanting as the plot sidesteps anything too dark and descends into typical inoffensive children’s fare.
The film stars Steve Carrel as Gru, a supervillain striving to return to his former glory days by being as evil as possible. Partly because he later turns out not to be completely heartless and therefore can’t be too wicked to begin with, Gru’s idea of pure evil is to nick large monuments, instead of say, chopping little children up and feeding them to the lions. As a result, he’s never a truly convincing villain and his supposed transformation into a thoroughly nice bloke is predictable and not really all that transformative.
Gru needs to out-do the newest supervillain on the block, Vector (Jason Segel), whose theft of the Great Pyramid of Giza cemented his status as the world’s most revered evil genius. Using three little girls from the local Annie-esque orphanage to infiltrate Vector’s minimalist lair, Gru attempts to seize the shrink-ray he needs in order to steal the moon.
He is helped by his countless “minions” – little yellow workers with more than a hint of the Oompa-Loompa about them, but which are an amusing addition to the ensemble – and Dr Nefario, voiced by Russell Brand, proving that however much you base a character’s name on a word meaning “evil”, they will never seem anything less than cheerful and friendly if they speak with a chirpy Essex accent. The characters aren’t as fully explored or as vividly coloured as the leads from more accomplished children’s films, but it’s a pretty entertaining ride all the same, with enough witty asides and tense action to keep parents and babysitters amused for an hour or so.
Steve Carrel’s brilliant deadpan and perfect timing bringing the script alive, perhaps most notably when he reads a bedtime story to his adopted daughters. “This is literature?” asks Gru incredulously. Ultimately though, Despicable Me couldn’t help but send out a predictably schmaltzy love-conquers-all message, the likes of which many of us had hoped that children’s movies had left behind.
The Toy Story franchise introduced to movie-goers the concept that a kid’s film might be clever and funny enough that adults would want to see it, regardless of whether they had any accompanying children with whom to watch it. Despicable Me, with its formulaic plot and average characters, doesn’t quite measure up to this standard, but if you do have a couple of little ones in tow, it’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon.