By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
So many elements of Despicable Me feel borrowed from better animated movies that its uniqueness may go unappreciated.
It would help if nobody saw The Incredibles, Up and Toy Story. Yet enough is different about Despicable Me — starting with a hero who'd be the heavy elsewhere — to make this more than a Pixar ripoff. Toss in the most vivid usage of 3-D technology since Avatar and there's plenty to enjoy.
Not that it happens all at once. Nearly an hour of Despicable Me passed pleasantly enough before it began to shed its influences and build its own identity. By the fadeout, the movie isn't as forgettable as it had seemed. Directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud craft a fun stretch run, wrapping the story with warm, fuzzy funnies and nothing to suggest a sequel, which is probably wise.
Steve Carell voices Gru, who claims to be the world's greatest supervillain, although recent underachievement suggests the contrary. Gru is a caricature of James Bond's nemesis Blofeld, with his bald pate, Eastern European accent and megalomaniacal disposition. He's also a nifty bit of animation anarchy, acting out rude impulses toward children, long lines at Starbucks and wildlife conservation.
Gru's secret lair is kept running by his tiny minions, toadying yellow globs with one or maybe two goggled eyes, who apparently learned speech from Pizza Planet squeaky toys. They're cute and occasionally overplayed; a shopping scene feels like an audition for a Saturday morning TV series. But they're exactly what a self-aggrandizing jerk with mommy issues like Gru needs.
The lair is buzzing with news that a rival supervillain — who resembles The Incredibles' Edna Mode — named Vector (Jason Segel) stole the pyramids of Giza. That makes Vector a better credit risk for the Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers, the entranceway declares) that finances all nefarious plots. Gru has a scheme to steal the moon, using a shrink ray he doesn't have yet, so the bank isn't budging.
Vector steals one, Gru hijacks it, and promptly loses it back. The only way to resteal the shrink ray is by invading Vector's lair, which is when Despicable Me begins setting itself apart.
Into this hectic sci-fi fantasy pops a trio of orphans: sensible Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), tomboyish Edith (Dana Gaier) and most adorably Agnes (Elsie Fisher), a saucer-eyed innocent. Gru figures he'll adopt the girls, use them to steal the ray gun, then dump them. Separately, the girls and Gru are amusing. Together, the blend of a man who hates cute and kids who can't help being that is irresistible, as it was in Up.
What sets Despicable Me apart is Gru, with Carell savoring each wickedly wry line, then turning sympathetic on a dime as he does so well. By the fadeout, Gru isn't as despicable as he once was, and we've learned a valuable lesson that supervillains need love, too.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.