‘Despicable Me’

Never underestimate the power of a tearful toddler.

It’s so powerful, not even "Despicable Me’s" title character can resist.

Chances are, you won’t be able to either. Yet there’s absolutely no shame in surrendering to the charms of this cheeky computer-animated tale.

It’s no "Toy Story 3," of course. (What could be?) It’s not even "How to Train Your Dragon," this year’s runner-up (so far) in the big-screen cartoon sweepstakes.

None of which prevents "Despicable Me" from demonstrating, yet again, that there’s more life, more humor — and more heart — in many of today’s animated features than their live-action counterparts can hope to muster.

With deftly detailed animation, impish slapstick humor and expert use of 3-D, "Despicable Me" makes for a welcome addition to the ranks of movies that entertain kids and their parents with equal flair.

And while it takes some time for Gru, "Despicable Me’s" title character, to find himself susceptible to a little girl’s irresistible pleadings, getting there is more than half the fun.

When we first meet Gru (short for gruesome, we presume), he’s plotting revenge. After all, it’s tough to be the Avis of the underworld: Number Two, and always trying harder.

Someone else has just committed the crime of the century — purloining an entire Egyptian pyramid! — and Gru (voiced with fiendish glee, and a touch of wistful melancholy, by Steve Carell) must come up with an appropriate can-you-top-this response.

Stealing the moon from the sky, perhaps?

To achieve this seemingly impossible feat, Gru needs plenty of help from his partners in crime.

Fortunately, he has a virtual army of goggle-eyed Minions waiting to do his dastardly bidding. Cute, cylindrical and yellow — they resemble the mutant offspring of a banana and a vitamin capsule — Minions jabber like "Star Wars’ " Jawas and bounce around like Willy Wonka’s Oompa-Loompas, without all the preachy, sing-song advice.

And then there’s inventor extraordinaire Dr. Nefario (voiced by manic maniac Russell Brand), Gru’s equivalent to James Bond’s Q, who can whip up anything — as long as he hears you properly. Which is seldom.

Instead of delivering requested cookie robots, for example, Dr. Nefario designs boogie robots.

Perfect for a computer-animated "Saturday Night Fever" sequel, perhaps, but less so for Gru’s latest caper: stealing a high-tech shrink-ray device he needs for his moon mission from his vile rival, Vector (an appropriately whiny Jason Segel).

Desperate to get to Vector — a supernerd supervillain who’d probably win a Bill Gates look-alike contest — Gru spies on Vector’s seemingly impregnable fortress.

But when Vector opens his heavily fortified door to a trio of adorable orphans peddling cookies — level-headed Margo (voiced by "iCarly’s" Miranda Cosgrove), spunky Agnes (Elsie Fisher) and toddler Edith (Dana Gaier) — Gru devises a fiendish plan.

He’ll simply adopt the girls and use them to get to Vector.

But instead, the girls get to Gru.

Somewhere between the ballet lessons and the bedtime stories, Gru discovers that his endless pursuit of badness in no way interferes with his potential dadness.

Clearly, "Despicable Me’s" screenplay (credited to "Horton Hears a Who!" collaborators Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, from a story by animator Sergio Pablos ) doesn’t quite live up to the movie’s vivid visuals and colorful characters.

Still, it’s a lot of fun watching it try.

Making their feature debuts, directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud maintain a sprightly pace, with an emphasis on cheerful slapstick humor. There’s also some welcome satire, as when Gru goes to plead for financing from the Bank of Evil, "formerly known as Lehman Bros." Kids will laugh at one part of the joke, grown-ups at another — yet everybody laughs just the same.

And while there’s no denying "Despicable Me’s" sentimental side, the movie avoids tooth decay-level stickiness, making its inevitable happy ending all the sweeter.

"Despicable Me" also ranks as one of the few recent animated features that really knows how to inject energy and imagination into its obligatory 3-D effects. (Stay through the end credits, and you’ll get an in-your-face bonus with those irresistible Minions.)

Yet it’s the basics, from fanciful animation to expressive vocal work, that help make "Despicable Me" the total opposite of its title adjective.

For some reason, though, "Delightful Me" doesn’t sound nearly as beguiling.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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