Riding the coattails of the first official summer blockbuster is one thing, but it also doesn’t help to be in the same genre. While the filmmakers definitely give it their best shot, the comparisons are far too ripe with the release dates being so close. As good as Despicable Me strives to be, it fails to live up to the new standard set by DreamWorks in How to Train Your Dragon.
First time feature directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud do bring some new twists to the spy genre, but screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (College Road Trip, Horton Hears a Who!, The Santa Clause 2, and Bubble Boy) can’t get the tear-jerking sensibilities to mesh with their plot centered around an evil genius. Lead character Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is set up from the beginning as such a dastardly villain that he spends his free time popping children’s balloons, freezing patrons to skip to the front of the coffee shop line, and threatening to kill his neighbor's dog for leaving land mines in his yard.
Yes, Gru is one of the world’s top villains. He has managed to steal everything from the New York Jumbotron to the Vegas versions of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower. However, Gru has just been one-upped by a new, younger, and far hipper baddie named Vector (voiced by an unrecognizable Jason Segel) who managed to steal an Egyptian pyramid which he transplants to his own backyard and paints to camouflage against the sky. To maintain his lead status as head bad guy, Gru sets out to steal a shrink ray in order to steal the moon.
After Mr. Perkins (voiced by Will Arnett) turns Gru down for another loan at the “Bank of Evil (Formerly Lehman Brothers),” Gru and his devoted minions decide to cash in some of their recent successes to finance themselves in order to stay at the top of the game. But that’s not before three orphans named Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) rue Gru’s day and attempt to change his heart. But that’s not before he adopts them to integrate the girls into his nefarious plans against the better judgment of his own personal Q, Dr. Nefario (voiced by Russell Brand).
Thankfully utilizing Carell’s easy charms, masked behind an SNL-esque Russian accent, the character still manages to be likable even when he’s imagining ways to rid himself of three adorable orphans. The rest of the cast, most having worked together on other projects, also seem to be having more fun reassembled than could ever be said about anyone involved with another recent film.
The likes of Ken Jeong, Kristen Wiig, Danny McBride, Julie Andrews, Jemaine Clement, Mindy Kaling, and Jack MacBrayer are almost completely wasted by having them do silly voices so you can’t even tell it’s them or cutting their scenes. Even more extreme, some of their characters are completely altered from their IMDb credits (MacBrayer particularly), but the film still moves along nicely for a breezy 88 minutes even if there does seem to be a bit of padding. It’s just weird to watch an animated feature with as many montages as this one. Given how much time and effort and money goes into these types of films, you can’t help but long for perfection even if just on a technical aspect but that’s a big storytelling issue, especially when the film is so short.
While it’s doubtful to reach the kind of success that Toy Story 3, Shrek 4, or even How to Train Your Dragon have found, there’s still plenty of big laughs not limited to one of the funniest Santa Claus jokes ever and of course Gru’s minions (who come across like nicer versions of Mogwais prior to getting wet) manage to steal the whole show. And how could I personally not find some kind of affection for a film when it features a giant indoor shark aquarium? It may not be as big a feat as Toy Story 3 but it’s still a far better effort than the hopefully final Shrek installment and for some that may be all they need to know.
Photo courtesy Universal Pictures