Movies: Despicable Me ***
(G, general release)
Being an animator in this Pixar-dominated age must be hard, because anything you do will inevitably be compared to that studio's consistently excellent output, but if you sail too close to the Pixar style, you'll be condemned as a hack plagiarist.
Produced by Universal and French animation studio Mac Guff, Despicable Me is one of the more likeable non-Pixar animated features of recent years. And if it doesn't quite reach the Pixar heights, it's a modestly inventive, consistently entertaining and very amusing action-adventure.
Gru (Steve Carell) is a dastardly international villain who would fit right in to your average Bond movie. He hatches grand schemes in his creepy suburban home and likes to consider himself the world's greatest supervillain.
But when an unknown bad guy succeeds in stealing the Great Pyramid of Giza and replacing it with an inflatable replica, Gru realises he has a rival.
This upstart turns out to be Vector (Jason Segel), a cocky young villain with a bad attitude and seemingly endless resources.
Desperate to regain his number-one standing, Gru dreams up a grand scheme to shrink the moon and steal it using a shrink ray that's been developed by Asian scientists.
Before he can proceed, however, Vector steals the shrink ray from under his nose, dashing Gru's plans.
Vector lives in a fortified hi-tech mansion that seems impenetrable.
But Vector has a weakness for cookies, and when Gru spots three orphan girls trudging around the neighbourhood selling homemade biscuits, he hatches a plan.
Margo, Edith and Agnes are delighted when they're told they've been adopted by a kindly benefactor, but less than impressed when they meet the stern and coldly aloof Gru.
He intends dumping them once they've allowed him to gain access to Vector's lair, but little girls have a knack of worming their way into the hardest heart, and Gru finds himself beset by some very unfamiliar emotions.
Despicable Me rattles along at a brisk and sometimes almost frantic pace, and is cleanly if unremarkably animated.
Its saving grace is its sense of humour, and after a sluggish beginning, the visual and verbal jokes come thick and fast.
Many of these stem from the antics of the Minions, a horde of mischievous, yellow, pill-shaped creatures of uncertain biological origin who speak a squeaky language all their own.
A fine voice cast includes Kristen Wiig, Julie Andrews and Russell Brand, who plays an elderly English inventor.
But this is Carell's film, and he brings all his wit and deadpan skill to bear on the character of the curmudgeonly villain.