Despicable Me
Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud
Written by Ken Daurio and Sergio Pablos
Starring Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig
**1/2

This might sound strange, but the movie that came to mind while watching the new animated romp Despicable Me was Woody Allen’s “first” feature What’s Up Tiger Lily?

For those who aren’t familiar with that 1966 goof, the backstory is that Allen–then best known as a standup comic whose only acting credits were What’s New Pussycat and Casino Royale–purchased the rights to two obscure Japanese spy pictures (which, for the record, are titled International Secret Police: A Barrel of Gunpowder and International Secret Police: Key of Keys), mashed them together, tossed out the plots and imposed his own narrative and dialogue on the proceedings.  The resulting film plays like a vintage MAD Magazine spoof, complete with a non-stop barrage of one-liners, lots of bizarre non-sequiturs and a story–which involves the quest for the perfect egg salad recipe–that frequently comments on its own ridiculousness.  Although Allen has long since disowned the movie, it’s still pretty darn funny largely because you get the sense that he and his cast of voiceover actors are having a blast re-writing the film on the fly.

To be perfectly honest, Despicable Me has next to nothing in common with What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, but here’s the slender connection that twinned them in my mind.  Despite being produced and distributed under the Universal Pictures banner, the film was animated entirely in France by the Paris-based company Mac Guff.  As a result, the visuals have a distinctly European flavor–character designs are more exaggerated and cartoonish than is typically the norm in contemporary American animation (studios like Pixar and DreamWorks strive for a kind of realism that this film is largely uninterested in) and the architecture in the town these folks inhabit bears a closer resemblance to the Paris suburbs than any American burg.  At the same time, every time a character opens his or her mouth, out comes the voice of a famous Hollywood actor.  (The vocal cast includes such big names as Steve Carell, Jason Segel and Nickelodeon starlet Miranda Cosgrove.)  So for me at least, the overall effect of watching Despicable Me was somewhat akin to seeing a foreign film dubbed into English…much like What’s Up, Tiger Lily?

For better or for worse though, the filmmakers behind Despicable Me are playing it straight, slotting those skilled comic actors into a conventional family movie instead of allowing them to come up with their own wild take on the material.  And as much as I would have preferred a version of the film that was closer in spirit to What’s Up Tiger Lily?, I have to admit that Despicable Me is a generally okay kiddie picture, one that lacks the emotional power Toy Story 3 or the witty hijinks of How to Train Your Dragon, but provides some solid laughs for the 8-and-under crowd.  The wafer-thin plot involves an evil genius named Gru (Carell) whose latest despicable plan involves shrinking the moon and holding it for ransom.  Pulling this scheme off obviously requires the use of a shrinking ray and the only one in existence is in the possession of a new bad guy on the block, Vector (Segal).  Since Vector is barricaded in his well-fortified house, Gru has to resort to a creative, if labor-intensive, way of getting his hands on his prize.  Seizing on his rival’s one major weakness—an appetite for girl scout cookies—Gru adopts three young orphans from the local orphanage to distract Vector with tasty treats while he makes off with the shrinking ray.  What this criminal mastermind couldn’t have predicted (and what all of the adults in the audience will figure out in the first five minutes) is that he’d grow to like and even love these adorable moppets, who ultimately transform him from a super-villain into a kind of super-hero.

All of this plays out in diverting, if entirely predictable fashion, as directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud focus their attention on hitting all of the expected plot points and comic beats without doing anything particularly innovative.  A better movie, for example, would have made more out of the notion that this version of Earth is home to a number of dastardly villains with nary a costumed hero in sight.  Many of the supporting characters—most notably the three orphan girls—would have benefitted from more distinguishable personality traits as well.  In fact, the film’s most memorable creations aren’t any of the main roles, but the yellow minions that run around doing Gru’s bidding very, very badly.  (It’s no surprise that the movie’s marketing campaign is built almost entirely around those little guys, who were clearly the audience favorite at the screening I attended.)  As future DVD babysitters go, you could do a lot worse than Despicable MeDoogal springs to mind—but the movie might have amounted to more than a pleasant trifle if it took more creative chances with its formula.

Despicable Me opens in theaters on Friday.