<b>MASTERMIND:</b> Meledandri is making family and animated films for Universal. The first is "Despicable Me," with Steve Carell voicing Gru (background)

MASTERMIND: Meledandri is making family and animated films for Universal. The first is "Despicable Me," with Steve Carell voicing Gru (background) (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles Times)

In "Despicable Me," Steve Carell lends his voice to Gru, a bandit on a quest for the ultimate theft: the moon. As a producer of the animated Universal Pictures comedy, Chris Meledandri has an only slightly less ambitious goal -- stealing some of the thunder from Pixar, DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox.

Computer animation has emerged as one of Hollywood's most commercially successful genres and is becoming as popular with critics and awards voters ("Up" was nominated for the best picture Oscar) as with families. While some of the proceeds have been staggering -- Disney bought Pixar for $7.4 billion, the last "Ice Age" sequel grossed more than $884 million, and DreamWorks has a market capitalization of $3.7 billion -- Universal has watched the boom from the sidelines.

Determined to stop being a spectator, Universal in early 2007 hired Meledandri from Fox, where he had overseen the studio's animation division and the launch of its "Ice Age" franchise. The charge was to create a division for family entertainment and on July 9, Meledandri (and his Illumination Entertainment) has his first release for his new home, "Despicable Me." Plans call for two Universal movies a year -- some animated, some not -- soon, including Tim Burton directing a stop-motion "Addams Family" and an animated version of Dr. Seuss' "The Lorax."

Neither Universal nor Meledandri is interested in parroting the business of Pixar and DreamWorks, which spend more than $150 million on their productions and huge sums on screenplay development. "We needed to create a model of efficiency," Meledandri says. "We can't afford to have a lot of trial and error."

The idea: Develop only a handful of scripts and look for unusual (meaning cheaper) places to make them -- "Despicable Me," which shows how Gru is transformed from a heartless thief into a doting dad by three orphan girls, was animated by France's Mac Guff visual effects house. The animation in "Despicable Me" isn't breaking any new ground, which is part of Meledandri's economy. "There's a lot of work," he says of other elaborately animated movies, "that the audience never sees."

If money is saved by not perfectly animating every single blade of grass, Meledandri says he won't skimp on storytelling. "Character is the center of everything we do," he says. "And the foundation of our company is based on gifted artists."

john.horn@latimes.com