Friday, July 9, 2010

Dastardly Deeds: DESPICABLE ME

There’s some Peter Sellers in Steve Carell’s voice-performance as Gru, the Inspector Clouseau of supervillains who is the focus of Despicable Me, the latest computer animated extravaganza, this time from Universal instead of the usual animation houses. Gru speaks in an indeterminately Slavic accent as he bumbles his way through elaborate schemes that only occasionally work by accident. He’s not even considered to be a great villain. He’s certainly not as great as Vector (Jason Segal) who just stole the Pyramids. In fact, on the morning of the great Giza heist, Gru was popping a kid’s balloon and later using a freeze-ray to shorten the line at Starbucks.

Despite help from an elderly mad scientist (Russell Brand) and an army of little scene-stealing yellow nugget-creatures – Minions, he calls them, though I would bet they share some part of their DNA with the Oompa Loompas – Gru is considered to be a hopelessly ineffective villain. Why, none of his schemes have ever turned a profit. His new scheme does look promising though, especially since he has adopted help from a nearby orphanage, three extremely adorable little girls.

All of this is relayed quickly and charmingly in the opening scenes of Despicable Me, which never reaches the heights that other recent family films have, but moves with such energy and style that it’s hard to resist. The plot is a little predictable. Of course those three sisters will melt Gru’s heart. Is that even in doubt? And of course the voice cast is ridiculously overqualified, with people like Julie Andrews and Kristen Wiig given only a few lines each. But the animation is appealing and the pure zaniness of the proceedings is certainly welcome. This is the kind of animated movie that spins out sight-gags and loopy visuals with a Loony Tunes inspired rapid-paced visual wit (even if it doesn’t approach the breakneck speed of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs).

There’s a charm to the movie’s whole-hearted embrace of cartoon physics and slapstick violence devoid of consequences. Rockets explode, gadgets backfire, Minions – and Gru – are squished, smushed, and shot at, yet the worst that ever happens is a coating of soot. But, when the big climax comes and characters we’ve grown to like are in danger, it’s kind of frightening, albeit still in a safe, cartoony, thoroughly kid-friendly way. This climactic danger is heightened by the 3D effect, which amplifies the distance found in a mighty threatening drop. This is the rare movie that actually uses 3D’s added dimensionality for good effect. Rather than merely diminishing a 2D film (The Last Airbender) or applying a barely-noticeable 3D gloss (Toy Story 3), Despicable Me uses the extra space for some gags, some danger, and some added goofiness.

In this summer of cynical, bludgeoning, failing blockbusters, a summer that’s been, with few exceptions, a disappointment, a film like this is refreshing. This is a good-natured, light-hearted, high-energy crowd-pleaser. It’s uncomplicated in its entertainment value. It’s sweet, simple, silly, and satisfying.

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