x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

A hero not quite despicable, but desperate to impress

This wildly overpraised animated feature has a terrific lead character, but only the skimpiest notion of what to do with him.

Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) in the scene from Universal Pictures' Despicable Me.
Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) in the scene from Universal Pictures' Despicable Me.

Wildly overpraised (and a big hit) in the US, the 3D animated feature Despicable Mefrom Universal has a terrific lead character but only the skimpiest notion of what to do with him. Steve Carell is the voice of Gru, a big, bald and malignant super-villain who looks (and talks) like an Eastern European wrestler, lives in a gothic pile in the burbs, and masterminds operations from a subterranean lair manned by a doddery old scientist (Russell Brand) and hundreds of mass-produced minions (oddly unfunny little fellows with bodies like cheese puffs).

Embarrassed when a rival arch criminal makes off with the pyramid at Giza (he can only counter with the Statue of Liberty - the mini replica from Las Vegas), Gru fast-tracks his plan to shoot for the moon, a dastardly plot that involves a prototype shrinking raygun and a big rocket. Unfortunately the Bank of Evil pulls the plug on his funding when his nemesis, Vector (Jason Segal), steals the shrinking gun.

How can Gru infiltrate Vector's heavily fortified modernist mansion? Why, with the help of three orphaned little girls, of course, going door-to-door selling cookies for the orphanage. Despicable Me has a sharp look and a very cool, unusually inventive musical score, but somebody in the script department must have decided to play the percentages when it came to gags. The movie is top heavy with comic business, but far too many jokes miss the target, and they drag the story off course in the process.

The scattergun approach does have compensations (a lovely scene when Gru reads the kids a bedtime story for instance) but you won't find the emotional truth and intelligence of the Pixar films. Borrowing liberally but inconsistently from Lemony Snicket as well as Pixar's Monsters Inc and The Incredibles, the film can't resist sentimentalising its trio of big-eyed orphan waifs, even if it would dearly like to be harder and sharper than that.

Disappointingly, the climax drops the moon shot in favour of that family film cliché, the errant dad racing home from work in order to get to his kids' school play (or in this case, ballet). As for the 3D, there's less than meets the eye. Even a rollercoaster scene feels mostly underwhelming. None of this is to say Despicable Me is a bad film - if you're five years old. It's hard to dislike any movie that casts Julie Andrews as a viciously cutting mother, the root of Gru's peculiar evil. But like the super-villain himself, it would work so much better if it wasn't quite so desperate to impress.