Who dares to challenge Gru as the "greatest villain of all time"? Vector, a nerd in a leisure suit (voice of Jason Segel), whose father runs the Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers). Vector has invented a ray gun that shrinks its targets. If Gru can storm Vector's ultramodern bunker, he can steal the gun, shrink the moon to the size of a soccer ball, disrupt the tides, and reclaim the title Earl of Evil.
Animated by the French outfit Mac Guff Ligne - which deploys a handful of coming-at-ya 3-D effects - Despicable Me is a cluttered, overplotted inventory of dastardly deeds intended to show how being bad shrinks Gru's heart.
What makes it swell is a trio of orphans he adopts to help him steal the ray gun. (Vector lets the little girls enter because he likes the cookies they sell.) When Gru is with Margot, Edith, and Agnes, he is different. Hard as he tries to be a Dr. Evil type, he can't help but be daddy dear. The movie is about how fatherhood has charms to rehabilitate the unreconstructed baddie. In other words, Gru, the spiky guy who sleeps in a spiky bed, learns how to appreciate soft 'n' fluffy. (Says Agnes with a sigh, cuddling a plush toy, "It's so fluffy!", an expression destined to become the season's catchphrase.)
Considerably more interesting than the arsenal of guns that freeze targets, shrink objects, or use squid as ammunition is the backstory explaining how Gru grew up. Nothing he invented as a child - rocket, fission device, or useful invention - could earn him a smile from his disapproving mother. As Mom, Julie Andrews' expressive grunts of eh, feh, and meh constitute the film's most eloquent dialogue.
Short, sweet-and-sour, and amusing rather than funny, Despicable Me can't help but be likable.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-542 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/