When bad guys go good
Despicable Me (2010)
Directed by Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud
Cast: Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Miranda Cosgrove
With everybody in Hollywood—from DreamWorks (Shrek) to Sony (Open Season) to Paramount (Barnyard) to 20th Century Fox (Ice Age) to Warner Bros. (Happy Feet)—trying to catch up with Pixar (Toy Story 3) in the CGI-animated sweepstakes, it barely registers when somebody new steps into the fray. The new player this week: Universal Pictures, whiping out its first CGI toon, Despicable Me.
The film is an odd but thoroughly genial amalgam of several different genres. Mostly, it’s about our main man Gru (voiced by Steve Carell in full Eastern European, “moose and sqvirrel” accent). Gru’s a career supervillain. A sour, scheming, bald-headed super genius whose grandiose goals seem to outnumber his concrete successes. So far, his most insidious plot was stealing the JumboTron out of Times Square. Impressive, but we’re not exactly dealing with Doctor Doom here.
Hungry for a splashy, headline-grabbing display of evil, Gru comes up with a mad plan to steal the moon. Only problem is, he can’t get funding for it. To add insult to injury, all his villainous thunder is being usurped by an irritating über-nerd named Vector (Jason Segel), who just managed to snatch the Great Pyramid from Egypt. Locked in a game of one-upmanship with the new villain on the block, Gru is desperate to bring his satellite-stealing plan to fruition.
Sensing an opportunity to trick his nemesis, Gru adopts a trio of hard-luck orphans named Margo, Agnes and Edith (Miranda Cosgrove, Elsie Fisher and Dana Gaier), who show up one day at his doorstep. Plotwise, the excuse for Gru’s faux fatherhood is a slim one. (The girls are essentially selling Girl Scout Cookies, and he needs them ... um, as a cover to sneak into Vector’s fortress?) But it sets up the film’s more central premise: that of the grim villain who has his heart melted by a trio of cute little kids.
Yeah, it sounds like a sappy, standard-issue plot device. And because of it, Despicable Me is regularly in danger of becoming a terminally cute variation on Little Orphan Annie. But the film has so many likable elements (including some clever jokes about Little Orphan Annie), it’s hard to begrudge the occasional warm fuzzies. The animation is smooth—not Pixar smooth, but close to what DreamWorks has been putting out, at least. The voice cast is a solid assemblage of funny people (Jemaine Clement, Julie Andrews, Kristen Wiig, Will Arnett and Russell Brand contribute as well). The cutesiness of the central plot is balanced by the wonderful slapstick of Gru’s “Minions”—tiny, yellow, jelly bean-shaped creatures who wear overalls, mumble their own high-pitched language and generally provide the laughs. They’ve been the film’s most prominent marketing image, and they’re definitely worthy of their own short film. (Bonus content on the DVD, please, Universal?)
Conceptually, Despicable Me is a bit off somehow. The characters are well thought out, but it’s hard to tell in what sort of world they’re supposed to be living. A fantasy world filled with James Bond-style supervillains, but no superheroes? A planet where “evil guy” is a viable job description? Huh. It’s not that I don’t buy it. It just seems like certain details are missing. It’s not clear, for example, what our man Gru actually gets out of stealing stuff like the moon. And where, exactly, did his millions of tiny minions come from? And what the hell are they, anyway?
At the end of the day, though, it’s unlikely the film’s core audience will gripe much over such conceptual gaps. It’s bright and colorful. It’s got some very funny moments. And the adorable stuff is genuine enough to elicit a vocal “awwww” from even hardened cynics like me. Evil villains, cute orphans, weird little minions—Despicable Me is like a Waldorf salad. It’s an illogical mixture of simple ingredients that somehow gels.