With memories of How to Train Your Dragon and Toy Story 3 still lingering heavily in the air - to say nothing of the aftertaste of the feature animation annus mirabilis that was 2009 - it's not hard to want Despicable Me to be better than it is. Yet at the same time, with things like Shrek Forever After still stinking up the megaplexes on a regular basis (and Christ, have you seen the incomprehensibly ugly trailer for Alpha and Omega?), there's something wonderfully satisfying about any Hollywood animated feature that manages to be honestly entertaining for any stretch without having to rely on jarring pop culture references and fart jokes. Mind you, both jarring pop culture references and fart jokes are to be found within Despicable Me, but at a greatly reduced rate compared to what has slowly become the norm over the past decade and change (heck, there's a fart joke even in TS3 itself).

Few if any movies coming out this summer have had more comprehensive ad campaigns stretching back longer than this, so you've probably picked up at least a chunk of this or that part of the plot: one of the world's great supervillains, a penguin-shaped gentleman named Gru (Steve Carrell) is suffering an acute case of jealousy when a much younger criminal mastermind named Vector (Jason Segel) makes a huge splash by stealing the Great Pyramid of Giza. Gru's plot to reclaim his mantle as the world's foremost monument thief involves stealing a shrink ray and using it to heist the moon, but even this runs aground when Vector snatches the shrink ray out from under him. Whereupon Gru hits upon another scheme: there are three orphan girls who have just sold Vector cookies, and surely a sufficiently despicable mind wouldn't stop at adopting them and using them as his key to get into Vector's compound. Which is why he ends up in charge of brainy Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), tomboy Edith (Dana Gaier), and the tiny & adorable Agnes (Elsie Fisher). In the classically-honored family movie way, having three children around all the time makes Gru's tiny black heart melt, and before you can say "second half that's nowhere near as good as the first half", he has become a doting adopted dad - to the detriment of his crimelording, and the frustration of his second-in-command, the inventor Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand).

The fuzzy optimism of the latter part of the film is a comforting and unsurprising as a well-worn pair of loafers, and there's no way it was ever going to be else; but I still feel a pang in my heart that the Despicable Me which is such a weirdly attractive riff on Bondian supervillainy done up in cartoon physics, has to turn into the Despicable Me in which Lessons Are Learned and Family Is Best. For the first Despicable Me is at times very unexpectedly funny, albeit the best jokes have mostly been given away in one of the fifteen or twenty trailers and TV spots. There's a certain joyfulness with which Carrell (unusually well-cast for an animated celebrity voice) attacks the character, written as a mixture of outdated slang and petty meanness, and given life by the actor with bubbly grumpiness and an accent somewhere between Boris Badenov and Bela Lugosi. His nasty path through suburbia, his interactions with his army of minions (yellow-tube shaped homunculi), and especially his crotchety dismissal of the sisters, before their charm starts to work on him, is a quirky, slapsticky bit of cartooning like we don't get very much of anymore, and it's fun while it lasts, even if it has to be picked out from the things that don't work, like the more-annoying-than-funny Vector, or the expected sprinkling of scatological jokes, or the glut of celebrities (including Kristen Wiig, Julie Andrews, and Jack McBrayer, for starters) voicing characters who only exist to provide an opportunity to cast celebrities.

Visually, Despicable Me is a credible piece of animation; not Pixar quality, obviously, nor equal to the best work of DreamWorks Animation. Still, the very stylised characters, who have the feeling of vinyl figurines more than flesh-and-blood people - and to my amazement, I find that this works rather well with overall cartoon anti-realism of the piece - are generally interesting to look at, even if nobody other than Gru and his minions meets my personal definition of "visually appealing". The first film produced by Chris Meledandri's Illumination Entertainment (perhaps you remember him from the first two Ice Age movies, or the deathless Robots?), though it was largely created in France, Despicable Me argues that, at the very least, it's worth keeping an eye on the company's next project: it is bound to look distinctive if not necessarily as earth-shatteringly beautiful as certain animation studios I could name.

And too, the visuals of Despicable Me demonstrate something else that I've been holding close to my heart for a while now, in relationship to the super-trendy new 3-D wave. Namely, for all the blather with your Avatars and such about 3-D deepening the film's canvass and creating new immersive storytelling modes, the technology is still mostly good for sheer old-fashioned hokum and gimmickry. There ain't nothing subtle about the dimensional effects in Despicable Me, which range from a first-person roller coaster ride to a whole plethora of things being thrust towards the camera: it's garish and gaudy, but decidedly more spectacular than the infinitely more subtle work done in e.g. Toy Story 3. I for one am entirely ready for this new fad to die already, finding it nothing but a way to get three extra dollars for negligible benefit (or even detriment: we're all starting to notice how much damn darker the picture gets when you're wearing those glasses, right?), but when a movie indulges in 3-D so goofily and pornishly as Despicable Me does, well, at least it has the appeal of gleefully self-aware trash at that point.

Anyway, the movie: not at all timeless, and when the inevitable Despicable Me 2 comes out, I expect the general response will be something more like "oh, right, that movie came out two years ago" rather than "finally!" But in the spectrum of children's movies, it's perfectly harmless fun, that devolves by inches into perfectly harmless pablum. It fulfills the most basic role of the summer popcorn movie, at least, which is that it is 95 minutes of non-insulting entertainment; a divertissement and nothing more, but a pleasant one, and with 2010 trending the way it is, that's enough to keep me from complaining.

Reviews in this series
Despicable Me (Coffin & Renaud, 2010)
Despicable Me 2 (Coffin & Renaud, 2013)
Minions (Coffin & Balda, 2015)
Despicable Me 3 (Coffin & Balda and Guillon, 2017)