It's hard to find a movie these days that hasn't been pre-marketed to the viewer. Sequels, reboots, remakes, and adaptations all coast on a blend of nostalgia and synergy, and anything else has been aggressively targeted at some pre-existing niche based on recent success stories. Now, I don't watch much television, but according to my Twitter feed, Universal has been aggressively, near-abusively marketing Despicable Me to audiences in the hope that something, nay, anything from the movie will stick in viewers' minds without the benefit of something they've already been fed before. It's like a publicist's worst nightmare: something just original enough to be without "how-to-get-audiences'-attention" precedent, while falling just short of enough ambition to be sold as "the next big epic."
Steve Carell voices Gru, a supervillain bent on world recognition. Along with an army of gibberish-spouting, Twinkie-like minions (fittingly nicknamed Minions), he racks up a list of simultaneously impressive-yet-middling thefts like the Times Square Jumbotron, and the Las Vegas version of the Statue of Liberty. It isn't until a new supervillain named Vector (voice of Jason Segel) bursts onto the scene with a much-talked about pyramid heist that Gru realizes it's time to literally shoot for the moon, fulfilling a lifelong goal to get to our orbiting cousin and take it for himself. He's just gotten his hands on a crucial piece of technology -- a shrink ray -- when Vector bursts onto the scene and snatches it away from him and hides it in his nearly impenetrable fortress.
The trailers have painted a bizarre picture of the movie's plot. First, a teaser with just the stolen pyramid scene seemed to suggest some sort of globe-trotting, animated heist film with landmarks instead of banks. The second built up the villainous rivalry between Gru and Vector, but it felt a little light on plot to fill up 80 minutes. Then, the third and final trailer ignored what had come before and introduced three little girls named Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Elsie Fisher), indicating the film was more of a Game Plan or Monsters, Inc. than anything. The truth is that Despicable Me spends most of the time flying by the seat of the pants, as if writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul were hastily stapling pages together on the way to the recording studio.
However, even as a 24-year-old guy who rarely uses the word, there's no better way to describe Despicable Me than "cute". It's almost unbearably cute. The Minions are cute. The kids are cute. I firmly believe Universal developed some sort of new proprietary technology in order to make Elsie Fisher sound as adorable as she does. Her line reading of "It's so fluffy I'm gonna die!" is all the cute the average animated film can muster all by itself. To that end, the colorful, appealing animation is a perfect complement to the tone, with a healthy dose of snappy cartoon style to boot. Computer animation can get wrapped up in useless things like texture and detail, but directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud use the tech to create fast-paced, high-energy slapstick that's more Looney Tunes than demo reel.
It's been a lackluster year so far, and the hits are few and far between. Maybe Despicable Me would rank a few notches lower on the yearly report card if we'd had a better slate of summer movies, but Despicable Me gets the job done without too much overture or pretention, endearing itself to its audience tenfold (using infallible techniques like a trio of adorable sisters), and by just plain being entertaining. It's a cotton candy confection of a movie that families should thoroughly enjoy, and it shouldn't give anyone cavities afterwards.
Note: Despicable Me is presented in RealD 3D, and it's actually very good. Unlike so many of the 3D movies lately -- even Toy Story 3, which opted to use the technique in subtle ways -- Renaud and Coffin have made sure that you get bang for your buck out of the $5 premium. There are even some stellar, clever gags during the credits designed specifically for the extra dimension, so stick around after the movie is over.
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