Despicable Me stands head and shoulders above a lot of recent animated releases, but it still can’t compete with the industry-defining level of Pixar releases. Instead, it trades in the kinds of cliches that populate the genre, but does so fairly cleverly. Nevertheless, while it contains a certain level of creativity and playfulness that adults can enjoy to some degree, it’s still primarily aimed at younger kids (well, except for the occasional throwaway gag like the name plate for the Evil Bank that reads underneath “formerly Lehman Brothers”).
As such, the film has a relatively modest set-up, and doesn’t overburden itself with the kind of story density that might elevate it to a higher level. There are a couple of hooks at play: competition between a pair of evil villains; and one evil villain in particular, our protagonist Gru, who adopts a trio of orphans, and like the Grinch, finds his heart growing as a result. Of course, his reason for adopting them is only to use them in one of his villainous schemes, namely to help procure a shrink ray that he needs to steal the moon. But once he spends some time with the girls, he begins to identify with them as a result of his own neglected childhood. Within these parameters, the storyline follows a predictable path, though the sequences are well-executed and feature a solid attention to detail.
The worst part of the film is probably the horde of Gru’s minions, the small yellow creatures who only speak in nonsense and are probably destined to become marketing tools across various media. They get too much screen time, particularly when their antics never go beyond infantile behavior, but again, the film is primarily intended for younger children, who likely will love the minions. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if a Minions film or television show were announced at some point in the near future.
The greatest strength is the films’ voice talent. Jack McBrayer and Danny McBride voice various supporting characters; Jason Segel plays it up as Gru’s rival villain, Vector; Kristin Wiig hits it as a corrupt orphanage manager; Julie Andrews is fantastic as Gru’s grouchy mother; Will Arnett is sublimely superb as the Evil Bank president; Russell Brand plays brilliantly against type as Gru’s ancient lab partner and Bondsian Q-alike; and Steve Carell is, of course, in his element and creative as ever as lead Gru. There’s a little too much Dr. Evil in Gru, both in terms of character design and vocal styling, but Carell gives him a sort of eastern European accent that helps to provide some slight character distance. The girls who play the three orphans are universally excellent, as well, and the youngest of them, Elsie Fisher, is both heart-capturingly adorable and perpetually hilarious.
All of the voice cast has so much infectious fun, that it carries the film, keeping the energy level as high as possible for its modestly-aimed material. This is also the kind of animated release that makes great use of 3D, rather than just slapping it on as an additional hook, and the energy from the voice cast is complemented by the creativity and playfulness put into the 3D formatting.