Despicable Me

If computer animation were still an expensive and painstaking process, “Despicable Me” wouldn’t exist. It isn’t worth that kind of effort. But when it’s fairly cheap, fairly quick, fairly easy? Eh, sure, here you go, kids, here’s your cartoon about a comical villain with a funny voice. Knock yourselves out.

Steve Carell provides the voice of Gru, a pointy-nosed supervillain known the world over for his dastardly deeds, most of which deal with larceny and sabotage rather than, you know, murder. But Gru, whose accent suggests he was raised somewhere between Boratville and Yakovsmirnofftown, has fallen on hard times. A young new hotshot has stirred things up by stealing one of the Egyptian pyramids; the best Gru could do was to swipe the Statue of Liberty replica in Las Vegas. Thanks to this newcomer, Gru can’t get the Bank of Evil to finance his next venture. His villainy isn’t super enough anymore.

The new supervillain, Vector (Jason Segel), is a dweeb with plentiful gadgets and funding. He’s also in possession of a shrink ray that Gru would love to get his hands on, if only to impress the Bank of Evil. After seeing a trio of orphan girls gain access to Vector’s fortress by selling cookies, Gru hits on the obvious plan: adopt the girls as his own children, then accompany them when they return to deliver Vector’s cookies. Admit it, that’s what you would do, too.

The orphans, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Elsie Fisher), currently reside at Miss Hattie’s Home for Girls, an amusingly depressing place where Miss Hattie (Kristen Wiig) frequently reminds them they’ll never be adopted. Posing as a kindly dentist whose wife has passed away, Gru takes custody of the girls and brings them home to his lair, which is decidedly non-childproof. The movie is never funnier than when it veers into this darker territory, getting laughs out of child endangerment without ever really suggesting any peril. Unfortunately, the screenplay (by “Horton Hears a Who” duo Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul) only dabbles in the edgy stuff and mostly sticks to middle-of-the-road slapstick and toothless gags where the supposedly despicable Gru slowly grows to care for these urchins.

Yep, this is essentially a domestic sitcom about a curmudgeon who is softened by the presence of children in his life.

Despicable Us:

“Despicable Me” (2010) C
“Despicable Me 2” (2013) C-
“Minions” (2015)
“Despicable Me 3” (2017) C

Oh: Gru is assisted by a legion of Twinkie-shaped little creatures called Minions. They speak their own language and behave like cheerful, dimwitted Oompa-Loompas. One suspects they were created with Happy Meal toys in mind. (The film was directed by animators Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, their first feature.)

The word “lousy” may have escaped my lips when someone asked what I thought of “Despicable Me” immediately after it was over. Having considered it further, I’d like to change “lousy” to “mediocre.” It isn’t bad — it has its moments. But that’s all they are: moments. The story is formulaic and stale, and the gags aren’t good or plentiful enough to freshen it up. Too frequently the “funny” part is simply that Gru or one of the Minions is speaking in a silly voice, never mind what they’re actually saying. The cast also includes Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Will Arnett, Jemaine Clement, Jack McBrayer, Danny McBride, and Mindy Kaling, yet nearly everyone is underused, misused, or otherwise wasted. (Were there any justice, a comedy with this cast would be the funniest thing you’d ever seen.) When someone launches a cable channel that plays mediocre animated features 24 hours a day, this one will be wedged between “Shark Tale” and “Planet 51.”

C (1 hr., 35 min.; PG, some slightly crude humor.)