Given the disappointing competition in movie theaters as of late, animated features are rapidly becoming the last bastion of imaginative, family-friendly entertainment. Not that there hasn't been a share of animated duds, but Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon have been two of the best movies of 2010 so far. Despicable Me deserves to join that short list for similarly doing just about everything right.
At the heart of the film is Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), a bald and angular grouch from Eastern Europe, judging by the unusual name and Carell's goofy accent. He also happens to be a super-villain with a secret lair in a conspicuous looking dark house in the middle of sunny surburbia—chances are good that The Addams Family were previous owners. It's there that he plans devious schemes with his inventive, codgerly partner-in-crime Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) and served by hundreds of little minions that resemble little green potatoes with appendages, goggles, and denim overalls.
Gru's latest project—to shrink and steal the moon—runs into a snag due to lack of funding. And the Bank of Evil won't provide a loan until Gru first shows some progress. It doesn't help that up-and-coming super-villain Vector (Jason Segel) seems to be having more success with his schemes, including swiping the experimental shrink ray that Gru needs for his plan. What's an evil mastermind to do?
Gru is not a nice man at the start of this film; there's something vaguely Count Olaf (from the Lemony Snicket books) about him. We're talking about the sort of villain who'll comfort a crying child by making a balloon animal for him … and then pop it before his eyes. He'd even pretend to be the perfect father to adopt three little orphan girls if it would somehow help him in his scheme—which it does, in this case.
Where's the hero to thwart this scoundrel, you ask? Maybe we'll meet Gru's equivalent to Superman or James Bond in another film. But it's not hard to figure that orphans Margo, Edith, and Agnes have an effect on this anti-hero, despite his misguided attempts at parenting, including dangerous weapons lying around the house and newspapers laid out on the floor. "I was hoping this would be more like Annie," quips one of the girls, and yet there's still enough of a bond to make Gru question whether he should commit ultra-larceny or attend their dance recital.
Hopefully you've heard enough to get a sense of Despicable Me's hilarious comedic sense; the theater I was in laughed itself silly, self included. The slapstick gags come quickly for much of the film, recalling classic Looney Toons from Warner Bros. and Mad Magazine's Spy vs. Spy at times (particularly when Gru tries to break into Vector's suburban fortress). The things meant to inspire laughs in the trailers are at least twice as funny in the context of the film. Now there's a sure sign of good comedy—you know what's coming but still laugh because the humor is communicated well.
The film is also family friendly despite its PG rating for "rude humor" involving poop and fart jokes. Maybe I'm splitting hairs here, but while other movies revel in crass gags, Despicable Me handles it more like a parent might share a laugh with their kids—it's the difference between classic slapstick and pointless potty humor I suppose. The humor gets a little dark at times (see The Family Corner below), but not in a way that would scare kids as much as tickle adults.