Superheroes are absent from Despicable Me; the supervillains appear to operate with impunity. In this movie’s world, the activities of the big leagues of villainy seem almost like some sort of conceptual art—the focus is on stealing major world landmarks. In the opening minutes, for instance, we learn that the Great Pyramid at Giza has been kyped.
The “Me” in Despicable Me is Gru, a tall fellow with a bald dome, a leering, long-nosed face and a down-in-the-throat Eastern European accent (provided by Steve Carell).
He lives in a handsome if forbidding suburban house sitting atop a palatial underground laboratory. It’s run by Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) and staffed by hundreds of Minions, cheerful little guys resembling ambulatory yellow Tic Tacs in dungarees, some with one goggled eye and some with two, who chatter and giggle energetically in an unidentifiable patois.
On the whole, Gru doesn’t seem to have it so bad, but he’s nagged by feelings of inadequacy common to middle-aged men: His career has fallen short of his ambitions. Sure, he’s stolen the Statue of Liberty, but only the small one, from Las Vegas. Plus, he never received the approval he craved from his brusque, dismissive mother (Julie Andrews). The Pyramid caper, performed by an insufferable up-and-coming supervillain who calls himself Vector (Jason Segel), makes Gru desperate to top it. So he decides on a pretty grand gesture: Stealing the Moon right out of the sky.
When Gru sees three cute little orphan girls out selling cookies, it occurs to him that he can use them to solve a snag in his scheme (“Light bulb,” he says out loud, with a sinister smile, when he gets an idea). So he adopts the lot of them, temporarily he thinks, and you can see where the movie is heading from there. Gru quickly learns that parenting three girls easily requires as much energy and resourcefulness as stealing the moon.
This charming & truly funny computer-animated effort from Universal is one of the bright spots of this summer’s so far mostly unappealing blockbuster season. Despicable Me is loaded with visually inventive, often riotous gags. The plot is preposterous but wildly imaginative—the stealing-the-moon bit is worthy of Voltaire—& the sentimental side of the story is sweet but not sticky.
Want to know one of the best things about this movie, though? It’s short. It’s not skimpy short, just not needlessly overextended in the manner of so many blockbusters. A friend of mine theorizes that with ticket prices so high, studios feel that they have to give us plenty of length, to create the sense that they’re giving us bang for our buck. Despicable Me demonstrates that if this is indeed the strategy, it’s misguided—this movie covers everything from multigenerational parent-child dynamics to the purloining of celestial objects, all at 51 minutes shorter than Sex in the City 2.