As the lights were dimming before a preview screening of Despicable Me, the six-year-old who lives in my house leaned over and said, "I hope this is funny — not like Toy Story 3." Now, don't misunderstand: He adored that movie. It's just that whenever the subject comes up, the first word he uses to describe the final adventures of Woody and Buzz is "sad." "Scary," too, when further pressed. But "funny"? Not once in a month's time. The thought of parting with his stuffed companions is, at this age, too much to bear.
So, then, to the movie featuring fart guns, shrink rays and squid shooters! Despicable Me is a silly (and, yes, Pixar-sweet) antidote to Toy Story 3's thoughtful heaviness — a cavalcade of kiddie giggles, titters and belly laughs. It's rather joyful and heartfelt, too: This is the story of a sad little man named Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) who learns that buried beneath his heft and hefty Mommy issues is a heart large enough to find room for three orphaned girls. To that, add countless yellow, pill-shaped, one- or two-eyed "minions" who provide enough comic relief to fuel a Nickelodeon spin-off show.
The result is pleasant and diverting, if ultimately forgettable, and it's one of the rare instances in the recent history of 3-D's resurrection as the Savior of Cinema in which the technology doesn't dim the screen or distract the focus (or fail altogether, as in the case of The Last Airbender, which looks more like out-of-focus 2-D). There are even sequences when the 3-D accentuates the experience, when the gimmick (and that's all it is for now) transcends the studios and exhibitors' excuse to charge premium prices. Gru's underground lab and workshop, populated by those minions and the scooter-bound scientist Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand, tamed), doesn't just look big; it's a vast, smoky, metallic expanse. And all the roller-coaster sequence lacks is a gust of air rushing past the audience. (Where, oh where, is our 4-D?)
In that way, Despicable Me is very much like last year's Monsters vs. Aliens, a '50s sci-fi homage whose wowee-zowee 3-D elevated formula filmmaking into something approaching landmark. But unlike that effort, which plays poorly on cable TV, stripped of its wowee-zowee 3-D, Despicable Me's storyline holds its own. Carell, sounding very much like a cross between Boris Badenov and Colonel Klink, makes Gru a wannabe evil genius whose villainy, sadly, fails to turn a profit, much to the dismay of the head banker at the Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers, for the grownups). When Gru tries to steal the Eiffel Tower, he ends up with a miniature one from Vegas. Turns out he's not so despicable; he's just grumpy and, at present, rather unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, an emergent competitor named Vector — a nebbish tween in a track suit voiced by Jason Segel — swaps a real pyramid with a blow-up replacement and is celebrated for the dastardly achievement. The old guard is under siege, and so Gru sets out to accomplish the ultimate act of thievery: stealing the moon. In his path lies not only Vector and the banker who won't okay the funding, but also Gru's mother, a hectoring shrew (voiced by Julie Andrews, nice touch) who, we're shown in flashback, has spent her whole life not only belittling her grown son's myriad accomplishments, but also shattering his childhood dreams. When, as a little boy in a cardboard space suit, he tells her he's one day going to the moon, she tells him not to bother — they stopped sending monkeys a long time ago. She's what done turned him, you know, so evil.
But into his life stumble three girls — Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), the oldest and most practical; Edith (Dana Gaier), the wisenheimer middle child; and Agnes (Elsie Fisher), the adorable, unicorn-obsessed youngest — whom Gru initially considers props in a heist. The girls, sellers of cookies, can get him inside Vector's lair, where the shrink ray he needs to swipe the moon resides. And then they'll be sent back to their home for wayward girls — if, that is, they all don't fall in love first and live Happily Ever After.