Making computer-animated family comedies for anyone other than Pixar must be a little bit like being a member of Gerry and the Pacemakers back in 1964--yes, yes, your band is very good, your songs are catchy and enjoyable, but you're trying to make Beatles music, and c'mon, you're not the Beatles. Despicable Me, the debut feature from Illumination Entertainment, is bright, cheery, and frequently funny. But it ain't the Beatles.
Steve Carell voices the protagonist, a would-be supervillian named Gru. Gru enjoys villainous acts big and small (in his first scene, he makes a balloon animal for a little boy, then delights in puncturing it with a needle), but he's been shown up by a new kid on the block: Vector (voiced by Jason Segal), who has stolen an Egyptian pyramid. In frustration, Gru and his Q, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), hatch a scheme to launch a rocket and steal the moon using a shrink ray stolen from an East Asian testing facility. But Vector swipes the shrink ray from Gru, and the only way he can think of to penetrate Vector's fortress is by enlisting, unwittingly, the help of three orphan girls who have sold Vector a payload of cookies. Gru adopts the girls, figuring he'll care for them until he gets the shrink ray back. Of course, this being a family animated comedy, he learns to love them, and vice versa.
Directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin have got a disarmingly cockeyed visual sense, and the picture is, on a very basic level, fun to look at; the character designs are ingenious, particularly Gru (with his bald head and carrot-like nose) and his minons, the tiny, round, yellow sidekicks who act as assistants, gophers, and cheerleaders. Carell, doing a strangled, vaguely Slavic accent, is an engaging lead--he gets the menace just right, so that the softness underneath isn't a hard turn. Segal, meanwhile, is clearly having a great time ("Curse you, tiny toilet!"), and Brand, Kristen Wiig, and Julie Andrews pull plenty of their own laughs. Danny McBride and Mindy Kaling, however, are wasted in brief, joke-free roles.
The kids (voiced by Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, and Eslie Fisher) are charming--there's an abundance of dry wit that verges, but never crosses, the too-clever-sitcom-kid line--and there are a couple of wonderful little sight gags, regarded but not overdone (Gru goes for a loan at the "Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers)"; a minion DJ plays music on "Gru-Ray disc"). But the minions are overused, Will Arnett is given nothing to do, and as clever as the picture occasionally is--and it occasionally is--it isn't nearly as clever as they think it is. It entertains, to a degree, but it feels too often as though they're coming up, somehow, just a little short.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Despicable Me comes in a three-disc set: one Blu-ray disc with the film and special features, one standard-def DVD with the film, and a digital copy disc for viewing on portable devices. "$60 Value!" blasts a sticker on the packaging, which I suppose is true if you're the kind of person who'd buy the same movie three times.
At this point in home entertainment history, it would be news to report that a computer-animated movie didn't look dynamite on Blu-ray. Despicable Me's MPEG-4 AVC-encoded presentation is no exception. Colors are absolutely eye-popping, contrast is stunning, and the lines are clean and beautiful. Details are remarkably lifelike--take note of the elephant skin in the testing facility, or the passing trees reflected in the side of a car--and every 1.85:1 frame has a slick, smooth polish. It is, predictably, a top-notch image.
The English DTS-HD Master Audio track is nearly as satisfying; the mix is bouncy fun, with energetic voice performances nicely complimented by the brassy score, which utilizes the entire soundstage. Rear channels are mostly used for music, in fact, though there are several notable exceptions, such as the Gru and Vector's well-panned aircrafts in the shrink ray heist, or the rocket landing sequence late in the movie. A touch more separation wouldn't have hurt in quieter scenes, but overall, this is a tight, enjoyable mix.
Spanish and French DTS 5.1 tracks are also available, as are English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles.
Directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin's Audio Commentary is energetic and informative; they spill plenty of details about the development of the film's look and how the actors informed the final product. The track also "features" the gibberish-spouting Minions, though thankfully not at length.
If you're so included, you can also watch the film in "Gru-Control," which pulls out from the frame occasionally to show Gru and the minions watching and reacting to the movie. Next up are three "Mini-Movies" (12:07 total), which are amusing enough, though Mr. Carell is conspicuously absent; these are showcases for the minions (and, in the first one, the orphan girls).
"The Voices of Despicable Me" (16:34) intercuts interviews with the actors and filmmakers with footage from the voice recording sessions; it's fun to watch, though the gushing gets a little thick. "The World of Despicable Me" (15:16) is a more straight-forward EPK-style making-of piece. "Despicable Beats" (2:48) is a quick look at the work of Pharrell Williams, the superproducer/performer who contributed songs and music to the picture; "A Global Effort" (3:23) details the international nature of the film's production.
Next up are two interactive games that you can play, awkwardly, with your remote control: "Super Silly Fun Land" (from the amusement park sequence in the film) with three on-screen carnival games, and "Gru's Rocket Builder," which has a slightly educational tilt. Game Previews are also included for the Despicable Me game (1:06) and the "Minion Mania App" (:50).
The disc's most inexplicable feature is "Miss Hattie's Top Secret Cookie Recipes," which is, oddly enough, just what it says it is: on-screen text of five recipes for the cookies that the girls sell door-to-door in the film (if you're the kind of cook who likes to work from your HD-TV).
The disc is also BD-Live and D-Box enabled.
Released the same summer as Toy Story 3, Despicable Me can't help but suffer in comparison--the humor isn't as smooth, the animation isn't as eye-popping, the pathos aren't as touching (not by a long shot). It's not the fault of these filmmakers that their picture doesn't quite measure up to the competition; that's just the way these things work out. Despicable Me isn't a bad movie. It's cute. It's pretty. It's just fine. But that's about it.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.