In a happy suburban neighborhood surrounded by white picket fences and flowering rose bushes sits a black house with a dead lawn. Unbeknownst to the neighbors, hidden deep beneath this home is a vast secret hideout. Surrounded by an army of mischievous little minions, we discover Gru planning the biggest heist in the history of the world. He is going to steal the moon (Yes, the moon!).

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Universal’s animated comedy is Pixar-lite.

It may seem churlish to question the motives behind the 3D animated movie which was one of the biggest hits of the US summer, raking in more than $US240 million.

Yet it’s hard not to feel being manipulated as Despicable Me tries to push all the right buttons for a family comedy: cute characters in jeopardy (but hardly life-threatening), well-known voice cast, several villains, eye-popping visuals, a fair sprinkling of jokes including lame attempts to make fun of farts and poop, a touch of pathos, and a soundtrack crammed with perky pop songs, disco and hip-hop.

It’s as if the creative brainstrust at Universal’s Illumination Entertainment, the new kids on the animation block, studied all the recent hits from Pixar, DreamWorks Animation and Fox’s Blue Sky Studios, and concocted their own highly derivative formula.

The major weakness is the screenplay by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio (who collaborated on College Road Trip, Horton Hears a Who! and The Santa Clause 2) which lacks the intelligence and hip humour that are standard fare in Pixar and DreamWorks offerings. Perhaps the first-time co-directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud lacked the experience or know-how to fix the problems with the script.

The plot is inane, lacking suspense and momentum, and many of the jokes either rely on slapstick or just aren’t funny. Voiced by Steve Carell in an annoying Russian accent, the chief villain is Gru, who’s distinguished by bushy eyebrows, a pointy nose and an ever-present scarf. Assisted by little yellow minions who sound like the Chipmunks and a mad Pommy scientist named Dr. Nefario (an unrestrained Russell Brand), Gru aims to be the world’s baddest bad guy by hatching a plot to steal the moon by first shrinking it to the size of a golf ball using, what else, an amazingly powerful shrink ray.

In this endeavour he faces competition from the brash, orange jump-suited nerd Vector (Jason Segel), who spouts silly sayings such as 'Boo-yah" and 'That’s what I’m talkin’ about!" Vector has just stolen one of the great pyramids (replaced by a blow-up replica) and now intends to grab the moon before grouchy Gru gets hold of it.

Meanwhile, Gru decides to adopt three cute orphans Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) after spotting how easily they entered Vector’s fortress to sell cookies. Nothing is more certain than the tots eventually melting Gru’s hard heart, and there are no prizes for guessing who wins the moon race.

The 3D effects are deployed most effectively in a sequence at a theme park, Vector’s 'squid gun’ and the climactic showdown, but I’m not sure they justify the premium price.

There are a few clever gags such as Gru providing for the orphans dog-food bowls marked 'food,’ 'water’ and 'pee pee + poo poo,’ and one of the kids remarking that being adopted by a bald guy made them feel like they were in the movie Annie.

However, no villain voiced by the playful Steve Carell is going to be all that scary, let alone despicable. Julie Andrews is under-used as Gru’s disapproving, karate-kicking mother.

Miss Hattie, the evil lady who runs the orphanage, is obese, as are customers glimpsed briefly at a supermarket and at the theme park. Was this, I wonder, an attempt to get overweight Americans to subliminally identify with the human characters?