Despicable Me (PG)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Let's say — just hypothetically — that you're launching a production studio for computer-animated features. Your inaugural effort is going to lay the groundwork for the way audiences will view your brand name. Do you: a) focus intently on nailing a story with real emotional honesty and resonance, or b) find a familiar, time-worn premise and then pack it full of gags?
It's not a huge surprise to see Illumination Entertainment choosing option "b" for its debut feature, Despicable Me. DreamWorks Animation hasn't exactly gone broke with four Shrek features, two Madagascar films and Kung Fu Panda. Nor have other late-comers like Blue Sky (Ice Age 1, 2 and 3). But Pixar has raised the bar on animated storytelling by preferring option "a," so if you're going to trot out a concept that's been done and done and done again, you've got to nail the execution. Unfortunately, Despicable Me appears content to deliver a movie that's merely diverting.
The setup introduces us to devious criminal mastermind Gru (Steve Carell) and the successful theft of the Great Pyramid at Giza. Gru was not the thief, however — his dastardly plots tend to fizzle. But he's certain he can secure a place in the super-villain pantheon by stealing ... the moon!
All it's going to take is a rocket and the shrink ray in the possession of his rival, Vector (Jason Segel). His plan involves the impromptu adoption of three orphans — Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) — to infiltrate Vector's lair delivering cookies.
If you're wondering whether the surly, misanthropic Gru will be softened by interaction with his adorable charges, I have a few words for you: Little Miss Marker. Three Godfathers. Gloria. The Professional. Kikujiro. Kolya. Central Station. Bad Santa.
Gruff protagonists and the kids who teach them how to love have populated movies around the world since movies began. Heck, it's already been done in computer-animation, including last year's Up.
Since it's not innovative, the success or failure of Despicable Me depends entirely on the details with which the filmmakers flesh out that familiar concept.
As creators of jokes, co-directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud (a Blue Sky veteran) and their screenwriters are reasonably successful. They get mileage out of Gru's army of minions, whose giggling immaturity delivers a lot of lowbrow humor. Gru's gloomy lair positioned in the middle of a cookie-cutter housing row makes for a nice introduction to Gru's workaday villainy, and there's a neat throwaway bit involving the camouflage draped over the stolen pyramid.
There is, at least, energy in the filmmaking — but it appears almost all of it was thrown into pacing and joke-molding, rather than storytelling. The backstory for Gru's evil ways introduces his callous mother (Julie Andrews), dealt with in a way that almost assumes mean mommies lead to megalomania. And there's a lost opportunity to develop Miss Hattie (Kristen Wiig), head of the girls' orphanage.
The voice performances lack spark, and the story beats are predictable.
It's not that there's anything actively wrong with Despicable Me; you'll find plenty of laughs (even if they're as obvious as a sign for "The Bank of Evil" subtitled "Formerly Lehman Brothers"). It's just that the whole enterprise feels somewhat lazy, the creation of people who want to make a movie without having anything interesting to say.
We can — and should — expect more than option "b" as the path of least resistance.