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Harry ForbesJuly 19, 2010

There’s nothing like the reformation of a misanthropic old curmudgeon. Just consider the perennial popularity of one Ebenezer Scrooge.

This is not to say that “Despicable Me,” the latest 3-D CGI effort from Universal (in tandem with its new animation arm, Illumination Entertainment) is in the same exalted realm as Charles Dickens. But the turnabout of the Scrooge-like character here pulls at the heartstrings in much the same manner.

He’s Gru, a hulking, hook-nosed man with spindly legs and a Middle European accent who looks like Steve Carrell on Prednisone. It is, in fact, the star of “The Office” who provides Gru’s voice, creating a character far different from his usual conservative albeit quirky persona.

Gru lives in a forbidding black house on an otherwise benign—if futuristic—suburban street and takes infinite pleasure in his badness. Creating a balloon figure for an unhappy child one moment, only to pop it the next, gives Gru deep satisfaction. Gru’s got “mother issues,” as we see from several flashbacks to the crone-like nag who never tired of telling him what a failure he was. She’s voiced, though you’d never guess it, by Julie Andrews, also using an exotic accent, rather than her customary prim British one.

When Vector (Jason Segel), Gru’s rival for World’s Best Villain—and a bespectacled nerd in an orange warm-up suit—pulls of the theft of one of the Egyptian pyramids, Gru hatches an even more grandiose plan to top him, and win his mother’s love. (He’s already stolen the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty, but they were, alas, only the Las Vegas versions.)

His new scheme is nothing less than pilfering the moon. This will involve stealing a “shrink-ray” from some Asian scientists, turning the moon into golf ball size and pocketing the orb. No sooner has he acquired the gun, however, than it’s promptly stolen away from him by Vector, who also has parental issues. His father is Mr. Perkins (Will Arnett), the head of the Bank of Evil, where Gru has unsuccessfully applied for a loan to pay for a rocket ship. Like Gru’s mother, Perkins thinks his son is a major disappointment.

When three little girls, Margo, Edith, and Agnes—sisters from Miss Hattie’s Home for Girls—easily gain entrance to Vector’s white armed fortress of a home to sell their scout cookies, Gru sees his chance. He’ll charm the evil Miss Hattie (Kristin Wiig with a conniving Southern accent) and adopt the girls. Then he’ll send them on a cookie mission, so he can infiltrate Vector’s home and steal back the device. The girls move in, nonplussed by Gru’s Gothic/high tech surroundings (they never truly believed Gru was a dentist as he told Miss Hattie), fearsome dog and hundreds of “minions” (cute little yellow robot creatures who toil in his underground lab).

Before long, following the lead of non-judgmental little Agnes, the girls expect Gru to become their father, with bedtime stories, goodnight kisses and the like. It isn’t long before Gru melts, becoming more domesticated and genuinely caring, even taking the little girls to their dance class where they are practicing for a “Swan Lake” recital.

But his crotchety, hard-of-hearing cohort Dr. Nefario (a gravely voiced Russell Brand) expects him to follow through with the moon mission, and arranges for the girls to be returned to the orphanage. Gru’s new-found domestic happiness appears to be at an end.

“Despicable Me,” co-directed by Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin, resembles “Up” in having if not a geriatric lead character, at least a distinctly middle-aged one. The film lacks the genuine artistry and profundity of last year’s Pixar classic, and some of the slapstick is crude and overdone. But the characters grow on you, and there is wit in Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio’s screenplay, based on a story conceived by executive producer Sergio Pablos.

So, too, there are some genuinely touching moments, as when the minions create a replacement toy for Agnes when her beloved unicorn doll is disintegrated, or later, when the girls beg their dance teacher to postpone their performance till their “dad” arrives.

The animation was done in France, which perhaps accounts for visuals that have a slightly different flair, though the art director Eric Guillon and the production designer Yarrow Cheney say they were inspired by Charles Addams and Edward Gorey. The 3-D effects are rather underutilized, and it’s not till the closing credit sequence that the process is used to full effect. But along the way, there is a fine roller-coaster sequence in an amusement park that briefly calls to mind the thrills of a similar scene of the old “This is Cinerama” from the early 1950s. An exciting mid-air rescue of imperiled Margo is another highlight. But in all, the 3-D effects are really not necessary.

Though rather dark in tone (at one point, little Agnes is seemingly impaled in an Iron Maiden), kids will take some life lessons about the transformative power of love, seeing the innate good in people the way little Agnes immediately takes to Gru, and learning to trust, as the wary Margo, so protective of her little sisters, eventually does.

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