It isn't easy being despicable. Just ask the creators of "Despicable Me," who started out trying to make a movie about a villain from the villain's perspective and ended up with a 3-D animated feature so saccharine that sappy sentimentality is more of a danger than exposure to evil.
As that exercise in false advertising indicates, watching "Despicable Me" can be something of a chore, especially when you factor in a penchant for what the MPAA ratings board characterizes as "rude humor." While aspects of it are amusing (more about that later), the project also gives off the unmistakably fatal air of trying too hard.
Directed by Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin and animated in a distinctly European visual style, the film throws so much ersatz cleverness and overdone emotion at the audience that we end up more worn out than entertained.
The villain in question would be a man named Gru. As voiced by the protean Steve Carell, he starts out as a bad guy of the Boris Badenov school of wickedness, given to saying things like "you got to be pulling on my leg."
As written by Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio based on a story by Sergio Pablos, Gru certainly does his best to be evil in the early going. He torments small children and sneaks to the head of the line to get his morning coffee.
But that petty villainy turns out to be only a front for a guy who is mercilessly tormented by his ancient mother (a deft Julie Andrews), an also-ran in his chosen profession and a patsy for a trio of heart-tugging orphans. Despicable? Maybe not.
We meet Gru at a crisis in his career. A new villain has just stolen one of Egypt's pyramids and replaced it with an inflatable replica. In order to get back into the game and regain his place at the forefront of villainy, Gru and his aide-de-camp Dr. Nefario ( Russell Brand) come up with a new objective: They are going to steal the moon. "Assemble the minions," Gru tells the good doctor, and what fun "Despicable Me" offers is about to begin.
Everyone should have minions toiling for them, and Gru has them by the dozen. Small, yellow, capsule-shaped and coverall wearing, these minions scurry about doing all manner of work for Gru, whom they adore the same way the aliens in the "Toy Story" trilogy worship the all-powerful Claw.
Some minions have one eye, others have two, but all wear thick black goggles and all speak an amusing gibberish language (mostly voiced by co-director Coffin) that never masks their wacky emotions. Given the prevalence of sequels, here's hoping there's a move afoot to give these folks a film of their own.
Unfortunately, plot elements with a lot less charm than the minions end up elbowing the little guys off the stage, and they're not a pleasure to experience.
One of these is Vector ( Jason Segel), the film's true bad guy. A whiny young man in an orange track suit and only marginally more effective at evil than Gru (good villains are apparently hard to find), Vector is more irritating than anything else, which is not a good thing.
Then there are those orphans, each one more cloying than the next: sensible Margo ( Miranda Cosgrove), sourpuss Edith (Dana Gaier) and sensitive Agnes (Elsie Fisher). Under the direction of slave-driving Miss Hattie ( Kristen Wiig) of Miss Hattie's Home for Girls, they strive to sell Girl Scout cookies by the carload and dream of being adopted and loved.
Once Gru discovers that Vector has a weakness for one particular kind of cookie (the coconutties, in point of fact), he determines to get the orphans under his power so he can use them in his nefarious schemes. "My heart is a tooth with a cavity that can only be filled by children," he tells a dubious Miss Hattie, and for some reason that awful line does the trick.
It doesn't take a Charles Dickens to figure out that once these nominally adorable orphans get into Gru's house, he will be swept away by their guileless charm and slowly turn into the father they have always wanted. Whether it's what the audience has always wanted is another question entirely.