If any child in America does not have a stuffed minion from Despicable Me by the end of the summer, then someone in the marketing department is not doing his job very well.
These minions—seemingly hundreds of them—work for aging supervillain Gru (voiced by Steve Carrell). Each is an almost unbearably adorable walking yellow blob with a toothy grin and either one or two eyes. They speak a unique minion gibberish and steal every scene they’re in with their eight-year-old boy’s sense of humor and talent for slapstick.
As Despicable Me begins, Gru is putting his minions to work on yet another great idea for an evil plot. Though they cheer him and set to work, it’s soon clear that he has trouble with follow-through. In search of funding for his latest caper, stealing the moon, he visits his usual underwriter, the Bank of Evil. Gru’s ego is hurting, since a newcomer named Vector (Jason Segel) has grabbed headlines by stealing the pyramid of Giza. This rivalry blossoms quickly, leading to an enjoyable aerial chase where Gru loses a stolen shrink ray to the younger, nimbler Vector. Their conflict escalates from there, with cookie robots, squid guns, and freeze rays all employed to great effects.
Yet even as their sense of enmity increases, their villainy seems to be more akin to fraternity pranks than, say, the anarchic chaos of the Joker. Both Gru and Vector live in the midst of suburban neighborhoods, rather than in secluded fortresses. Their lairs reflect their personalities—Gru’s looks like he hired the Addams Family’s decorator, while Vector’s sleek hideaway appears to have been designed by Apple. Their energetic opposition means the film has little need of another source of tension, and so it dispenses with more conventional foes, like superheroes.
Without the usual good vanquishing evil structure, the action throughout Despicable Me is both lively and expressly cartoonish. It owes more of a debt to the tradition of the original Tom and Jerry cartoons than those recent superhero films seeking to invest viewers in emotional backstories.
The comedy is broad, aimed at parents as well as kids. It avoids much of the pandering to audience segments—a fart joke for the kids followed by an incongruous pop culture reference for the adults—that makes some animated efforts feel like two movies poorly stitched together. Even when Despicable Me allows the minions to go for the cheap joke—as when they are caught photocopying pictures of their rear ends – it’s still funny, mainly because the minions are such amusing creations.
Scripted by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, and directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, the film includes as well a standard kid-flick story about Gru getting in touch with his good side. The catalysts here are three orphan girls he adopts as part of a plot to get inside Vector’s house (by selling him cookies), in order to retrieve the shrink ray. As these little girls melt his icy heart, Despicable Me doesn’t break new ground in turning Gru from a villain to a father figure, but the result is completely satisfying nonetheless. Carrell manages the transition of his character seamlessly, delivering Gru’s “humanity” despite being saddled with a thick somewhat-Slavic accent.
Unfortunately, telling a good story with interesting characters and ample funny bits doesn’t seem to be enough in Hollywood these days. The question of to 3D or not to 3D has recently become critical, as the technology is aimed to appeal to families in search of “event” entertainments. Here it’s a fine addition, though not a necessary one. One sequence on a roller coaster benefits from the extra dimension, allowing for an exhilarating first-person ride along the drops and turns. But otherwise viewers probably won’t miss the glasses if they catch Despicable Me on 2D screens.
That said, if you are in a 3D theater, stick around during the credits to watch the minions in a series of escalating gags that can only be enjoyed in 3D. Someone ought to give them a sequel of their own.