It used to be that most animated features had about as much story as a 10-minute Warners short. The rest was filler – bits, shtick, impressive visuals, a layering on transparent sentiment, and a few wisecracks tossed over the kiddies’ heads to keep the parents awake. Animation has moved beyond that in recent years, but “Despicable Me” represents a step back.
It’s not bad. It has its moments – they all have their moments – and the last half hour redeems the first hour, somewhat. But when compared with the ambition and achievement of recent animated films, such as “Coraline” and “Toy Story 3,” “Despicable Me” hardly seems to have been worth making, and it’s barely worth watching.
There’s enough substance here for a charming 10 minutes, or maybe a charming supersize 20. Steve Carell, doing an Eastern European accent, is the voice of Gru, who definitely has a look: flat bald head, long pointy nose, big wide body and very thin legs. Gru styles himself as the greatest villain in the world, and he has a plan to steal the moon.
But wait, he has competition! There’s an up-and-coming villain (the voice of Jason Segel), who also wants to steal the moon. And so we arrive at the central dramatic question: Will Gru be able to maintain his status as world’s greatest villain?
Do you see the problem with this already? As a plot conceit, there’s nothing in this to engage an audience. Obviously, no one cares if this guy gets to remain as the world’s top bad guy. Nor is this situation inherently amusing in a character way or even interesting in a satirical or sardonic way. There is simply nothing here, except a pretext for lots of labored, slapstick spy-versus-spy type shenanigans between the two “villains.” Twenty minutes into “Despicable Me,” nothing has happened.
The fake sentiment kicks in when Gru, for reasons not worth going into, adopts three little girls. At first, of course, he treats them with contempt, but then, gradually … You could write this movie, couldn’t you? You’ve seen it all before. “Despicable Me” is tedium in slow motion, a train coming down a well-worn track doing 5 miles an hour.
It gets better near the finish – it had better. An actual story, with situations that flow and build from other situations, kicks in after an hour, and all the effects and innovations the movie was saving up come in at the end, and it’s undeniably pleasurable. There’s also something to be said for the cute, boxy yellow minions, who are well drawn and funny, and for Carell himself, whose engaging spirit comes through his voice. It’s curious to note that for flashes at a time Gru looks like Carell, although it’s hard to see how that’s possible. Either it’s an illusion created by Carell’s voice or something wonderfully subtle and sophisticated that the animators are doing with Gru’s face.