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Crime isn’t paying for under-achieving super-villain Gru (Steve Carell) in Despicable Me. Having failed to turn a profit from capers that include stealing the Times Square Jumbotron, he is mocked by his mother and is in danger of being overshadowed by a new generation of high-tech baddies, represented by Vector, a mop-topped, four-eyed, Wii-playing geek in a ginger jumpsuit.

The slender plot involves Gru going up against Vector as they both compete to purloin a shrink-ray, a necessary component of our anti-hero’s megalomaniacal scheme to steal the moon. Without the shrink-ray as collateral, the Bank of Evil won’t underwrite the considerable expense involved in building a space rocket in his back garden. Unfortunately, Gru’s fuel-guzzling, steel-plated contraptions are a generation behind Vector’s immaculate designs, and he comes off much the worse from the encounter.

With the shrink-ray tucked out of reach inside Vector’s fortress, Gru decides to enlist the unwitting help of Margo, Edith and Agnes, three orphans girls who have gained access to the sanctum on their cookie-selling route. Putting his loathing for all things sweet and fluffy to one side, he adopts the girls and installs them in his sinister, child-unfriendly abode. Within minutes of arriving, however, they find their way to his secret laboratory and set about turning his life of sober devotion to evil upside down.

Bubbling with non-sequiturs and full of imperious demands for fluffy unicorns and bedtime stories about kittens, the three girls are beguiling and entirely credible. They’re one of the best things in the film, along with Russell Brand’s gruff-voiced turn as Dr. Nefario, Gru’s superannuated and pelican-necked technical assistant. Jason Segel’s Vector is also a success, becoming creepier the more you get to know him.

If Gru himself doesn’t spring to life in the same way, it’s hardly surprising considering his indebtedness to other comedy villains. His sooty-black mansion looks like it’s sub-rented from the Addams Family, while an early scene where he expounds his madcap plans to a rally of minions puts him one finger-nibble away from being Dr. Evil. A certain character the creative forces behind Despicable Me would very much like you to associate with Gru is, of course, that curmudgeon with a heart of gold and soft-hearted recluse, Shrek. But Gru doesn’t qualify as a recluse, not when his basement is full of minions.

It’s not as if the viewer is distracted from Gru’s shortcomings with a wealth of incident. On several occasions writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio have to busk shamelessly to keep the story going, most notably when they dispatch a few of the minions on a time-filling excursion to a toy store – minions, by the way, who are much less funny than the creators of Despicable Me seem to think.

Considering this is a tale about a would-be Napoleon of crime, the script shows an odd lack of ambition. Although it throws an occasional bone to the adults – “When we got adopted by a bald guy, I thought this would be more like ‘Annie’,” Edith remarks – it’s happiest making gags about deafness and breaking wind – or preferably both, as when Gru requests a dart gun and the hard-of-hearing Dr. Nefario comes up with something much more silent and deadly.

Despite that, directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin make the time pass pleasantly enough, thanks mainly to some idiosyncratic animation and action sequences which at their best – as when Gru’s and Vector’s aircraft tussle in mid-air like dogfighting hair-dryers – achieve a grandiose absurdity. Throw in a couple of good visual jokes – the moon suddenly vanishes, leaving an embarrassed naked guy standing where a howling werewolf had been seconds before – and you have a film that’s as hard to dislike as it is easy to forget.

Despicable Me won’t provoke much discussion at the big table, but it’s worth assembling the minions for.

Best performance: Russell Brand
Best line: “Assemble the minions!”
Best scene: The moon-shrinking sequence

Scriptwriter Cinco Paul’s unusual name comes from being born on the 5th of May – the fifth day of the fifth month.

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