The exclamation of predictability can be heard loud and clear within the first five minutes of Despicable Me, the new animated feature from Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment. The opening sequence uses the old joke of somebody trying to catch an object and saying, “I got it!” just before he or she misses the target. At the screening I attended, a child anticipated the joke and loudly said, “I don’t got it!” before the character could (the character did not say that line, giving the routine a bit of moot surprise). The child did not say anything else the rest of the movie, which surprises me considering how much else in Despicable Me is recycled material. The film is as hackneyed as many other recent computer-animated features, though a few elements save it from being truly disposable.

This movie concerns Gru (Steve Carell), an experienced villain planning to steal the moon. He adopts three girls so they can distract his rival, Vector (Jason Segel), while he steals Vector’s shrink ray. As anyone can guess, the girls worm their way into Gru’s heart amidst their shenanigans. Any pitch for this movie would no doubt describe it as an inverted Incredibles with shades of Shrek and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. That is how uninspired the movie is.

Villains play most of the major parts in the story, but the directors and writers of this movie do not develop the idea of competing bad guys. The world is shown as a place rife with villainy (they even have their own bank), yet the entire setup is played for laughs. Gru and Vector are mostly pushovers who never emerge as fearsome rivals or as menaces to the three girls. The closest we see to anything diabolical is a brief scene between Vector and Perkins (Will Arnett), an imperious banker who looks like a Rankin/Bass villain crossed with a Hammer-Head from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Their conversation suggests a developing subplot, but the subject is never addressed again. The characters just return to being their loopy selves. Nobody in this story can be taken seriously as a villain, removing any and all tension or excitement from their bouts and wrongdoings.

Despicable Me does marginally deviate from formula in its choice of humor. It has pop culture references and toilet humor like other recent animated features, but it does not exhibit those traits as much as duds like Shark Tale and Robots. The only live-action movie spoofs I recognized were a pointless Godfather tribute and a possible nod to Minority Report. I counted more allusions to other animated works. The story is very similar to the Cartoon Network series Dexter’s Laboratory, and the dialogue of orphanage caretaker Miss Hattie (Kristin Wiig) is almost a dead ringer to that of Madame Medusa from The Rescuers. Gru’s little yellow minions fill in for the three-eyed aliens from Toy Story, and their antics are intermittently funny despite some parallels to Bart Simpson jokes. The humor remains unoriginal, but I confess that the animation fan in me had fun spotting the references.

A slight source of unfairness is the fact that this movie seems to have been written, storyboarded and animated with the classic version of 3-D in mind. Unlike the immersive effects of Avatar and How to Train Your Dragon, Despicable Me is constructed to continually expel objects into the audience via scenes like a roller coaster ride and a running gag involving an anti-gravity elixir. This builds up to a humorous breach of the fourth wall during the end credits that reminded me of similar gags in The Three Caballeros and The Thief and the Cobbler. The trouble is that these jokes do not completely work on a 2-D screen, which is how I saw this movie. They are understandable to a 2-D audience, but the 3-D effects are needed to make the exaggerated proceedings truly hilarious. While the spectacle of Avatar and Dragon work regardless of their dimensions, Despicable Me lessens its capacity for humor by complying with one gimmick over multiple venues of exhibition.

If there is one area in which this movie is comparable, it is in the acting department. Whereas other modern animated features may hire celebrities for the sake of having known actors, the cast of Despicable Me was clearly chosen based on talent. Most of this cast is funny and appropriate (except Carell, who sounds like he is mugging for the microphone), with the standouts including Arnett, Russell Brand and an almost unrecognizable Jack McBrayer. They are all trying to create characters rather than just reciting lines for a job. It is just too bad that the movie is far less interesting than their performances.


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