For the passable computer animation Despicable Me, Steve Carell has adopted a Slavic accent somewhere between Tim the Bear from The Cleveland Show and that Alexander meerkat from the insurance ads; he's playing Gru, a supervillain with Giacometti legs and an inferiority complex, trying to lasso the moon - possibly to gain the respect of his mother. Pixar once again provides the touchstone, and the chief comparison point. Gru's credulous, obeisant Minions (ambulant yellow blobs, like the centrepiece in a Kinder Surprise) owe a lot to the aliens in the Toy Story movies, and their cooing delight upon entering a shopping mall is somehow very familiar. The main subplot, pitting Gru against nerdy rival Vector (Jason Segel) follows a template set down by The Incredibles, apparently a holy grail for modern animators.
The new film isn't quite in the same league, but it has pleasing elements of design. Some of this team worked on the outdoorsy Ice Age series for Fox, and Despicable Me - branching out, like the best Pixar ventures, in new directions - relishes the chance to do something a little more interior. From the prologue, featuring an inflatable pyramid thrown up to divert tourists from the fact the Pyramid of Geza is being stolen from under their very noses, the animation is good with edifices: I liked Gru's lair, a Gothic anomaly on an otherwise sunny suburban thoroughfare, where the TV is always left on (more energy-wastage, to go with the anti-hero's gas-guzzling tank-car), it comes complete with an ornamental Iron Maiden and a pet that's half-canine, half-ocean predator. The finale involves the moon rolling round inside a spaceship, a nice flourish of daffy, recto-verso cartoon logic.
Still, you can tell it's pitching to the U-certificate crowd from the fact Gru can't even bring himself to utter the words "fart gun". The whole thing is scaled dinky and rather too cute, as though it'd fallen subject to a blast from the shrink ray central to Gru's nefarious plans. The narrative obliges this once-heartless central figure to adopt three twirling, bright-eyed orphans, after which his life is all pinkie promises and tiny tutus. At which point, Despicable Me settles for becoming yet another of the multiplex's parables of practical parenting, one that suggests abandoning your grand designs to care for the little ones in your life - a message immediately undermined by the fact the Minions (who are, very much, a part of Gru's evil masterplan) are more memorable than any of the standard-adorable kiddiwinks.
Pharrell's score is almost entirely nondescript, but the direction has a zappy energy that gets the whole some way clear of its influences, and the voicecast - sourced from the ranks of the New American Comedy - ensure it's a shade or two less sickly than it might have been: in a fine demonstration of his own parenting skills, Carell makes something rather heartwarming of the simplistic bedtime stories he comes to read to his charges. Anyone over, say, eight years of age may well prefer the later Megamind, which majored in actual jokes, and wasn't so obviously beholden to a children's book.
Despicable Me is available on DVD through Universal; a sequel, Despicable Me 2, opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday.