Ever since he was a kid, Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) has struggled with big dreams. He wanted to be an astronaut, but his mother was consistently unimpressed. Even when he built a working rocket as a boy, his mom, when she could be bothered to pay attention, was unmoved.
So in a way, it's not surprising he has become a second-rate villain trying to make his mark on the world—but never going out of his way to do it. Gru has stolen the Statue of Liberty, although he's quick to add it's just the small one from Las Vegas. But when a rookie villain walks away with the Great Pyramid of Giza, Gru steps up his game, hatching a plot to steal the moon.
A slightly uncomfortable mix of darker adult humor and cutesy family fare, Despicable Me has trouble aligning both parts of its personality—although it still has plenty of good moments.
To get the upper hand on Vector (Jason Segel), for example, Gru adopts a trio of young girls so they can sell his rival Girl Scout cookies and infiltrate his seemingly impenetrable compound. Some of the joy of this film comes from the fact that super-villains are just accepted as part of life: Gru uses a freeze-ray to cut in line at the coffee shop, and Vector's hideout isn't hidden at all; it's a corner lot in the suburbs.
And in this world, apparently, there are no heroes, just bad guys capable of varying degrees of malfeasance, all underwritten by the Bank of Evil, which, as the marquee reads, used to be known as Lehman Brothers. That's a joke that really works, the kind that is offset and maybe undercut by a bit too much of a family touch, as Gru—as you could figure out from a mile away—becomes emotionally invested in the girls he originally adopts as pawns.
As Gru, Carell affects a vaguely Eastern European accent. It probably doesn't need to be good or even consistent, and that's a plus, because it's neither. Otherwise, it's a decent bit of voice acting, certainly good enough to carry the film. Carell is at his best when Gru is hopelessly vexed, which is his usual state. It probably helps that Carell is so good at playing the lonesome loser, from Michael Scott in The Office to Max Smart in Get Smart. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to picture storm clouds following Gru around.
A surprise is Russell Brand, following up a solid performance in Get Him to the Greek by voicing an octogenarian tech wizard who helps Gru's imagination come to life. Why the producers would choose a 30-something comedian not known for playing anything other than Russell Brand time after time is a mystery, and seeing his name in the credits will probably elicit more than a few double-takes.
In the end, Despicable Me is demonstrably better when it's more sarcastic; why there's an effort to make it soft and fluffy for children is hard to figure out.
A final note for parents planning to pack the minivan for this one: You have the option of traditional 2-D, or the 3-D presentation at about an extra $4 per ticket. Skip the 3-D. Toy Story 3 benefitted from it, but Despicable Me doesn't really gain anything from the upgrade.