Despicable Me

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

The imitation is sincere, and the flattery ours, in “Despicable Me,” a 3-D CGI Pixar-knockoff whose warmth, humor and off-kilter sensibility locates a wistful cleverness and nicely colored acerbic streak.
Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renault, the children’s film has a darker filigree and anarchic spirit that probably reflects the unusually varied cultural backgrounds of the movie’s team of French and American animators and filmmakers. It ultimately respects the rules of the game, as it were, but as the title bluntly implies, this is not a Disney work.
The Pixar influence is inescapable, and the filmmakers acknowledge as much (even throwing in a supermarket sequence that japes “Toy Story 2.”) For the most part, the filmmakers compensate by finding their own style and sensibility. 
The man at the center is not just a curmudgeon, a crank but a dastardly and suave master criminal. Very sharply and engagingly voiced by Steve Carell, Gru has the massive, elongated body of a linebacker and the spindly legs of a ballerina. With his shaven head, he incarnates a menace and unease. At the start, he responds to a young kid’s anguish at having his ice cream fall to the ground by offering the boy a balloon in its stead, only further deflating the kid by immediately pricking it.
The filmmakers inventively plunder a range of cultural artifacts and references, from “Saturday Night Fever,” “Jaws” and “Annie,” to Neil Armstrong’s moon landing. To their credit they are never afraid to hold back their nastier side. They have fun with cultural stereotypes, like a very funny prologue that blisters the Ugly American abroad and inventively sets up the storyline.
Fancying himself the world’s greatest super villain, Gru discovers his reputation is now severely threatened by a rival who has pulled off a brazen act of theft: he has stolen one of the great pyramids of Egypt. “Assemble the minions,” Gru shrieks, mobilizing the vast army of yellow colored miniature robots that help him achieve his dastardly ends. Grub’s evil genius scientist is the Strangelove-like Dr. Nefarious (Russell Brand).
His master plan is to raise the stakes exponentially by stealing the moon. The only problem is he lacks the resources. The evil banker (Will Arnett) makes a condition of his continued funding Gru’s ability to acquire a powerful ray gun that shrinks all matter. At the moment of his apparent triumph, Gru is outwitted by his rival, Vector (Jason Segel).
In a dovetailing plot, three precious and beautiful young girls, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher), orphans who are wards of a stern headmistress (Kristen Wiig), desperately seek their own home. After failing spectacularly in his first effort to penetrate Vector’s fortress, Gru takes in the three girls and recruits them as unsuspecting pawns in his bid to re-acquire the ray gun.
Naturally, even inevitably, the gruff and cold Gru finds himself inextricably drawn into the emotional world of his new charges. (In a Freudian series of flashbacks that is somewhat unnecessary, Gru is seen constantly humbled and humiliated by his brutally cold mother, voiced by Julie Andrews, at that.)
Beginning with an exhilarating trip to an amusement park, the highlight of which is a vertiginous ride on the rollercoaster, the girls not only begin the seemingly impossible job of humanizing Gru, they provide a warmth, love and friendship pronouncedly missing from the man’s life. 
The balance of the movie is concerned with the suddenly tormented Gru, caught between  his evil impulses and his now suddenly deepening generosity, love and protectiveness over his new family. 
Visually, the movie is a great deal of fun. Coffin and Renault play off the added dimension through a frequently inventive and clever coloring of time and space. They are especially good at movement and flight, like Gru’s makeshift rocket used to launch himself into deep space.  They also discover a warmer and funkier side, like a very funny running gag about one of the minions who ingests one of Nefario’s potions and floats away like an uncontrollable dirigible.
The characterizations are soulful, funny and organically woven into the larger narrative fabric. The byplay with the kids is funny and endearing without ever turning too sentimental. The filmmakers never overdo Gru’s churlish side, but the small bits are funky and edgier than most, like the specially equipped car he drives that’s an ecological soul killer. 
The movie has it both ways, taking advantage of the new technology that pushes the edges of photographic realism. At the same time, their work also harkens back to a different era of animation, from the delightful Rube Goldberg contraptions they visualize with panache, like Vecter’s compound, to the more frantic bits involving a surprising amount of violence and physical rupture.
Again, perhaps because they are outsiders the two directors have a lot of fun subverting American idealism and cultural customs, like suburban conformity. For all the jibes and clever putdowns “Despicable Me” sanctifies family as the ultimate restorer of good and what’s right. But the fun of the movie is learning how to get there.