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Despicable Me

Family-Friendly Fun

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

As another summer of sequels, remakes, and reboots hits the mid-point, originality has been hard to come by. Even the best-reviewed, most popular film of the summer, Toy Story 3, is a sequel (albeit one that equals or almost equals its predecessors). With Shrek Forever After already a forgotten memory and animated films temporarily in short supply, family-oriented moviegoers can either revisit Toy Story 3 a or take a chance on the semi-original, semi-inventive comic-book-themed fantasy-comedy, Despicable Me, made by the lesser known Illumination Studios and distributed by Universal Studios. Itís a chance worth taking.

Despicable Me centers on Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), a supervillain with a fiction resemblance to Ratatouilleís despised food critic Anton Ego and the Addams Familyís Uncle Fester. Gru is not a particularly effective or even dangerous supervillain. Like any comic book or James Bond-influenced supervillain, he has a vast, underground lair, populated by diminutive minions, and a gadget-inventing scientist, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), at his disposal.

Gruís plans involve grand, look-at-me gestures, meant to obtain the respect and admiration of his peers in the supervillain community rather than conquer the world, destabilize governments, or grab power for himself. He takes pride in stealing Times Squareís Jumbo-Tron, the Statue of Liberty (the small one from Las Vegas), and the Eiffel Tower (also from Vegas).

When a new, younger, risk-taking supervillain, Vector (Jason Segel), steals an Egyptian pyramid, Gru becomes concerned about his status in the supervillain community. To regain the unofficial title of No. 1 supervillain in the world, Gru thinks big and decides to put a lifelong plan into action to steal the moon. Given the size and distance involved, however, he decides to get a loan from the Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers, one of the few adult-oriented jokes found in Despicable Me). The bank executive, Mr. Perkins (Will Arnett), isnít impressed with Gruís plan, especially when he learns that Gru doesnít have a key component, a shrink ray, in hand.

In a James Bond-inspired set piece, Gru heads for East Asia, presumably North Korean, with his interchangeable minions in tow, to steal the shrink ray from the North Koreans. Success lasts only seconds as Vector steals the shrink ray from Gru. Desperate, but unable to recover the shrink ray, Gru hits on an oddball plan that takes advantage of Vectorís addiction to Girl Scout Cookies. He adopts three girls, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Elsie Fisher), from Ms. Hattieís (Kristen Wiig) Home for Girls, but true to genre form, inadvertently becomes the parental figure they both need and want.

Gru also gets to work out his own parental issues: a demanding, authoritarian mother (Julie Andrews) he could never satisfy, which partly explains his grandiose schemes. His journey is meant, at least in part, as a metaphor for work-obsessed parents who neglect their children and the need to cultivate reciprocity between parents and their children. Itís a generally benign, inoffensive message, but again an unsurprising one for a animated comedy aimed primarily at children 10 and under and their easily persuadable parents.

And given the gag- and slapstick-oriented humor that runs through Despicable Me, especially the Three Stooges-inspired interactions between and among Gruís minions, itís clear that the film aims low, age-wise. Thereís none of the themes, subtext, or complexity that make Pixarís films richly rewarding the first, second, and eighth time you see them, but thereís nothing necessarily wrong with keeping ambitions, especially for a first effort, modest.

Add to that visually engaging animation, including Gru and Vectorís super-secret, distinctly styled, underground lairs and a race to the moon and back in a homemade rocket ship, and the result is a pleasant, entertaining diversion for the entire family.