Despicable Me, Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud, 95 mins (U)

Beautiful CGI? Check. Cute gags? Check. Half-decent plot? Oops...

Given the time and money that go into producing even 60 seconds of animation, cartoons tend to be planned far more carefully than live-action films.

Take any Pixar movie: you don't get that intricacy of plotting or concentration of jokes in an Adam Sandler comedy. Despicable Me is another example. Released by Universal, it follows the formula set by Pixar, Dreamworks, Sony et al by being jam-packed with incidental gags and beautifully realised vistas. But in this instance, all those little details are there to paper over the gaping cracks where the story and characters should be.

The film begins with the premise that the hero is, in fact, a villain. Voiced by Steve Carell, Gru is a bald, eastern European, Blofeld-ish megalo-maniac who zaps people with his freeze ray so that he can jump the queue at the coffee shop. He's infamous for his grandiose crimes committed with the aid of an ageing scientist (voiced by Russell Brand) and thousands of pill-shaped yellow henchmen. But when a new villain on the block makes off with an Egyptian pyramid, stealing Gru's thunder in the process, he decides to take his career to a new level: he plans to pluck the moon from out of the sky.

It's at this point that the story goes adrift. To fund his lunar heist, Gru has to secure a loan from the Bank of Evil. And to secure that loan he has to pinch a shrink ray from his young rival, Vector. But Vector won't let anyone into his base, except small children selling cookies, so Gru has to adopt three cute orphan girls. And that, at long last, is where we get to the heart of the film.

The pyramid and the bank and the shrink ray and the cookies are there solely in order for Gru to choose between stealing the moon and becoming a loving dad and attending the girls' ballet recital. In short, instead of exploiting the comic potential of two pettily competitive supervillains, we get yet another restatement of one of Hollywood's most familiar – and most hypocritical – messages, that fathers should always put their children before their jobs.

In contrast with the complexity of the best Pixar films, Despicable Me is so uninspired that it ends with a dance routine. Carell brings some welcome depth and pathos to Gru, but the other characters might as well have been named Scientist, Bank Manager, and Orphans One, Two and Three, while the yellow Minions could have been called the Cuddly Toys.

In this light, the exuberant production design and endless throwaway gags start to look like desperate attempts to distract us from the cartoon's hollow core. You can almost see the roomful of writers labouring to reach their jokes-per-minute quota. But it's a shame that a film about yanking the moon from the earth's orbit should end up so full of cheese.

Next Week:

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Also Showing: 17/10/2010

Vampires Suck (82 mins, 12A)

The latest movie parody from Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, the writer-directors of Date Movie, Meet the Spartans and other such wretched wastes of time. Still, this is certainly their least awful effort so far. A spoof of the first two Twilight films, it's pointed enough to suggest, for a change, that the duo have some vague understanding of the source material, and Jenn Proske does a spot-on Kristen Stewart impersonation. Now all they need to learn is that the mention of a reality TV show does not, in itself, constitute a joke.

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