In a contest of wills, a villain with access to freeze rays and rocket ships is no match for a trio of adorable orphan girls. So we are reminded by "Despicable Me," an animated film featuring Steve Carell as the voice of Gru, an arch-fiend hamstrung by moppets.

The movie is funny in a prefabricated way, heavy on razzle-dazzle and light on soul. You'll probably leave the theater smiling, but don't expect to be emotionally engaged, Pixar-style. You'll be tickled, not touched.

Gru is villainy incarnate, He has the bald dome and leer of a Charles Addams and a proboscis Pinocchio would envy. He speaks with a Transylvanian accent and lives in a spooky Victorian. He motors around town in a land yacht that squanders more petroleum than the Deepwater Horizon. Worst of all, he picks on children.

He's resentful of a hotshot young villain named Vector (voiced by Jason Segel). Vector has stolen an Egyptian pyramid, which he keeps hidden in his back yard, camouflaged with sky blue paint and renderings of fluffy white clouds. That makes Gru's efforts look paltry: his stolen world landmarks are the knockoffs from Vegas. Worse yet, Vector has seized the shrink ray that is the key to Gru's plot to steal the moon. Pesky kid!

Vector's lair is an impregnable ultramod fortress, the boy's only weakness a yen for coconut cookies. To gain access, Gru adopts three orphaned sisters. No-nonsense Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), smart-aleck Edith (Dana Gaier) and innocent little Agnes (Elsie Fisher) are to be his pawns. Gru is comically brusque with the newcomers, bored cross-eyed by their calls for bedtime stories and kisses. All it takes is the orphans' influence to puncture his bluster and thaw his icebound heart. This escapes being cloying, though sometimes by millimeters.

The action takes the cast through high-flying adventures in tin-can rocket ships, across tightropes and on roller coasters, which is where the film has the most fun. Directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin make clever use of 3-D effects, with stomach-dropping moments of vertigo and playful jokes about visual perspective. The supporting cast is eye-catching, too. Gru is served by hordes of yellow, lozenge-shaped Oompa Loompas -- sorry, "minions" -- who supply diverting moments of head-bopping slapstick and gibberish dialogue when the main story needs a breather. The little thingamabobs (voiced by the directors) are cute, though they feel contrived to drive toy sales. Russell Brand plays Dr. Nefario, Gru's doddering old munitions maker, who supplies a fart gun when a dart gun is required.

There are a few crumbs for the adults in the audience (jabs against Wall Street when Gru applies for a loan at the Bank of Evil; Chinese tanks blasting a dove out of the sky when it violates the airspace over the Great Wall). But most of the film is high-fructose kiddie treacle. "Despicable Me" operates timidly within the bounds of family entertainment, dealing in truisms and routine plot points rather than lampooning them. The film, from Universal Studios, a newcomer in the animation market, is so studiously conventional it feels hollow. Once again, the dramatic peak is a breakneck race to the kids' recital. I enjoyed myself well enough moment to moment but I'd rather revisit the funnier, Grimm-er, altogether superior "Toy Story 3" any day.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186