Let's say — just hypothetically — that you're launching a production studio for computer-animated features. Your inaugural effort is going to lay the groundwork for the way audiences will think about your brand name. And you have at least a couple of models out there for how you could do things. Do you focus intently on nailing a story with real emotional honesty and resonance, or do you just find a familiar, time-worn premise that you don't have to think too much about and then pack it full of gags?
It's not incredibly surprising to see Illumination Entertainment choosing the second option for its debut feature, Despicable Me. It's not like DreamWorks Animation has gone broke relying on that paradigm, nor have other late-comers who followed in those footsteps, like Blue Sky. But with the way Pixar has raised the bar on animated storytelling by taking that first route, you really need to nail the execution if you're going to trot out a concept that's been done and done and done again. And Despicable Me appears content to deliver something that's merely diverting.
The setup introduces us to a devious criminal mastermind named Gru (Steve Carell) and the successful theft of the Great Pyramid at Giza. Unfortunately, Gru was not the thief; his own dastardly plots have had a tendency to fizzle out. But he's certain he can take his place in the super-villain pantheon by stealing the moon. All it's going to take is a rocket (a loan from The Bank of Evil permitting) and the shrink ray in the possession of his rival, Vector (Jason Segel). And his plan for snaring that device involves the impromptu adoption of a trio of orphans — Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) — to infiltrate Vector's lair by delivering cookies.
If you're wondering whether the surly, misanthropic Gru will be softened by his interaction with his adorable charges, I have a few words for you: Gloria, The Professional, Bad Santa. Gruff protagonists and the kids who teach them how to love have populated movies around the world for nearly as long as there have been movies. Heck, it's already been done in computer-animated features on multiple occasions, including Blue Sky's Ice Age and just last year by Pixar in Up. As a basic foundation for a story, it requires no thought or creativity whatsoever.
Since that's the case, the success or failure of Despicable Me depends entirely on the details that the filmmakers develop to flesh out that concept. As creators of jokes, co-directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud (the latter a Blue Sky veteran) and their screenwriters are reasonably successful. They get plenty of mileage out of Gru's yellow capsule-shaped minions, whose giggling immaturity delivers a lot of the low-brow humor. The positioning of Gru's gloomy lair in the middle of a cookie-cutter housing row makes for a nice introduction to Gru's workaday villainy, and there's a neat throwaway bit involving the camouflage draped over the stolen pyramid.
There is, to be sure, energy in the filmmaking here, but it appears that almost all of it was thrown into the pacing and joke-molding, rather than the storytelling. The back story for Gru's evil ways shows us his callous mother (Julie Andrews), a prime motivator; it's dealt with in a way that almost assumes that mean mommies lead to megalomania. There's a great opportunity in establishing the head of the girls' orphanage, Miss Hattie (Kristen Wiig), as an opportunistic slave driver, but the film doesn't really do anything with that angle. The voice performances lack spark, and the story beats are predictable. You can identify practically down to the second when the "we're becoming a happy family now" montage is about to begin.
It's not that there's anything actively wrong or annoying with Despicable Me; you'll certainly find more than a few laughs (even if they're acutely obvious, like a sign for The Bank of Evil subtitled "Formerly Lehman Brothers"). But the whole enterprise feels somewhat lazy, the creation of people who want to make a movie without having anything really interesting to say. We can — and should — expect more than the latest example of the easy way out as the path of least resistance.