Among the pop-culture treasures of Mad magazine is its venerable “Spy vs. Spy” series. With its two saboteurs hell-bent on doing each other in, the comic strip is a wry send-up of dastardly high-tech espionage. “Despicable Me,” a new computer-generated, 3-D animated movie that involves a pair of adversarial supervillains, is at its best when seeking to replicate that scrappy vibe.
But “Despicable Me” is about 90 minutes longer than it would take most Mad connoisseurs to buzz through a page. So the filmmakers also borrow elsewhere to fill things out and satiate the summer appetite for kid-friendly fodder. It’s not for nothing that the movie pilfers from Pixar, the gold standard of animated film.
The main character bears a resemblance to the food critic from “Ratatouille.” A little orphan girl is a stand-in for Boo from “Monsters Inc.,” and the bad guy appears to be the love child of Bill Gates and the diminutive costumer from “The Incredibles.”
But “Despicable Me” isn’t alone in stealing from the Pixar canon. Screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (“Horton Hears a Who!”) rejigger the heartless-grows-a-heart plot of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and snag a big-finish dance number from the “Shrek” playbook.
The “Me” of the title is Gru (voiced by Steve Carell, “Date Night”), a hunched, straw-legged, Russian-accented supervillain whose most notorious thefts include the Times Square Jumbotron and a faux Statue of Liberty. Not surprisingly, such heists pale beside those of a hot new baddie on the scene, the nerdy Vector (Jason Segel, “I Love You, Man”), who has swiped the Great Pyramid of Giza. The competition sends Gru, more sensitive and insecure than your run-of-the-mill criminal mastermind, into a tailspin, and he resolves to get back in the game by stealing the moon.
For that, however, he needs a shrink ray in Vector’s possession. Through a tortured plot contrivance, Gru adopts three little orphan girls Vector has allowed into his fortress-styled house because they sell a type of Girl Scout cookie he likes.
A mean-spirited villain with no use for children? A trio of cute orphans? What do you think could possibly happen here?
Despite the predictability of its cut-and-paste screenplay, perhaps the most surprising thing about “Despicable Me” is how accomplished it is once you set aside the story. Its animation, a cross-pollination of “Looney Tunes” and Charles Addams, has a hyper-caffeinated stylishness that almost compensates for the labored slapstick. When the funniest bit is a pun on a fart gun ” or did you mean “dart” gun? ” you’ve got trouble.
Moreover, directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud have the good fortune of some gifted voice performers. Carrel manages to imbue Gru with a vulnerability beyond the tired neglected-child flashbacks provided by the script, while Russell Brand (“Get Him to the Greek”) admirably tamps down his oversized persona as Gru’s go-to inventor, Dr. Nefario.
Most inspired of all are the “minions,” Gru’s scores of yellow, marshmallow-shaped, goggle-eyed helpers. These creatures are tailor-made for crass marketing, but they’re undeniably amusing. Here’s hoping for more minions ” and fewer everything else ” in the inevitable sequel. “Phil Bacharach