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Non-Review Review: Despicable Me

I think that, as a general trend, the quality of computer-animated films has increased significantly over the past number of years. I think there are a variety of reasons for this – the most obvious being that it seems to be easier to do, and so more companies are trying; but also because there’s an increasing body of work that offers hints on what to do and how to do it. While Pixar remain the undisputed champions of computer-generated animation, I think we’ve seen an increasing number of high-quality releases from all studios in the past few years. Despicable Mesees a new studio throwing their hat into the ring and it makes for an impressive debut. While there’s still room for improvement, Despicable Me is fast and fun, and remarkably uncynical for a children’s movie about super-villains.

Aiming for the moon...

It’s interesting to note the large volume of “dueling” movies that have been produced in computer-generated animation, with certain films competing for the same niche with significant overlap. Perhaps the most obvious live-action example is the contest between Armageddon and Deep Impact, both offering a slice of asteroid-induced catastrophe to movie audiences. Within animation, the number of such overlapping films seems to increase significantly – with Dreamworks producing Antz while Pixar released A Bug’s Life, or A Shark’s Tale squaring off against Finding Nemo and even The Tale of Despereaux facing off against Ratatouille. I don’t know if it’s because minds in animation tend to think along the same line, or a result of some strange quirk in the zeitgeist, but it seems to happen a bit.

The first animated film from Universal’s Illumination Entertainment, Despicable Me found itself released in the same year as Dreamworks’ Megamind. Both films tell the story of a super-villain who is misunderstood and trying to make his way in the world, notably without a superhero to counterbalance them. It’s to the credit of Despicable Me that it emerges as the most entertaining of the two films, despite the lack of animation experience behind it. While it might not be quiteas clever as Megamind, it does have a lot more heart to it, something which allows the movie to overcome its modest flaws.

What's our Vector, Victor?

Despicable Me is the story of Gru, the ambiguously Cold War super-villain who finds himself with something of a mid-life crisis. He’s just not that big a deal these days, as he resorts to childish gimmicks like freeze-rays and tormenting poor children, while his younger competition are off stealing pyramids. “Look, Gru,” his bank manager tells him, “the point is, there are a lot of newer villains out there. Younger than you, hungrier than you. Younger. Than you. Like that young fellow out there.” Just to be sure that we get the point. Played with a kooky charm (and a thick accent) by Steve Carrell, Gru is a decidedly old-world villain. He uses gaudy Cold War bomb casings, lives in a spooky house that looks like something from Transalvania and seems to have a thing for grey metal.

In contrast, his younger counterpart, Victor, wears “a warm-up suit” (a glorified tracksuit) and lives in a home that looks like it was modelled on an Apple Store. Given how blatant the movie is in displaying the MS-NBC logo at one point, I can’t help but feel that it’s a none-too-subtle very tongue-in-cheek take-that directed at Microsoft’s closest competitor. Victor’s brough to life with considerable charm by Jason Segel, who is emerging as quite the talent to watch. Anyway, the movie follows Gru as he plans to adopt three adorable orphans in order to strike at Victor through his one fatal weakness… his addiction to coconut cookies!

Flight of fancy?

The ending is a foregone conclusion, as it is any children’s film featuring orphans, and Despicable Me is rarely unpredictable. You can pretty much chart the film’s storyline based on my relatively brief synopsis. It gets a little bit strange when the film seems to repeatedly bring up potential plot elements, only to do nothing with them. There’s a disappointing number of very insignificant and very loose ends left by the end of the film. I’ll admit, for example, to being quite surprised that Gru’s mother’s kickboxing lesson never seems to come in hand, and also that the “boogie robots” don’t make an appearance at a convenient moment towards the end of the film. It’s strange, because you suspect any number of threads could have tied into a slightly more unpredictable central plotline.

And yet, despite these fairly fundamental flaws, the film works remarkably well. I think that the writing staff have borrowed a trick from Pixar, and come to the conclusion that a movie for children doesn’t have to condescend to its audience. While Gru adopts three orphans, they remain secondary characters, and they movie doesn’t waste too much time trying to make them audience stand-ins. The focus remains on Gru, who is the movie’s lead, which allows for a more complete exploration of his character.

It's reasonably fluffy, I guess...

It also allows the movie to deal with what are essentially adult fears, rather than traditional childhood insecurities. While the three girls don’t like the orphanage where Gru found them, they never seem to genuinely fear being sent back. It’s Gru who ends up afraid of losing them, rather than vice versa. More than that, there’s a moment where Gru is forced to liquidate his evil empire, which feels more than a little bit topical, and articulates a lot of the sense of dread that any professional feels at a time like this. “In terms of money,” he explains, “we have no money.” He clarifies, to his adorable little workforce, “Now would probably be a good time to look for other employment options.”

That’s just one facet of the film’s success, though. It also is just really entertaining. In particular, the characters of the minions, which hark back to the days of slapstick comedy. Mostly incomprehensible, the adorable yellow creatures provide the perfect opportunity for physical comedy, and the film is aware of their charm – there’s a strange extended sequence in the middle of the film where three of them go shopping. It’s far longer than it needs to be, but the minions are enough fun that you don’t mind. There’s something quite wonderful about an overgrown yellow tic-tac laughing like a gleeful little sociopath.

A Gru-Some Villain?

Directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud show a natural talent. I like the heavily-stylised designs of the characters, which seems to allow for more slapstick than most other computer-animated films. The two stage some wonderful set pieces, which are all infectiously fun, like an aerial battle between Gru and Victor, or Gru’s attempts to infiltrate his opponent’s lair. I even like the attempts to emulate more conventional filmmaking, like staging a “shaky cam” moment as Gru mounts Victor’s escape pod. These are nice touches, and it’s the execution which really allows the movie to rise above its conventional plotting.

Despicable Me might not be an animated classic, but it is good fun. It’s charming and entertaining, and the best motion picture to feature Carrell in quite some time.

2 Responses

  1. I really liked this one and thought it got a pretty cool reception considering how quality it is; maybe Pixar just dominates in this arena so much so that everything of the same persuasion looks mediocre by comparison? This has a lot of heart and knows how to have a great time. I’ll allow that at times it gets a bit too sentimental for its own good but it at least earns those moments even if they do go somewhat over the line of acceptability and get a little cloying.

    It’s a minor criticism. This is the sort of movie it’s hard not to love.

    • Yep. Even though I acknowledge it’s flawed, I really warmed to it. And it’s amazing how one bad film can damage a studio’s reputation – it’s surreal not to see Pixar’s name on top of Oscar shortlists this year, and I find myself kinda having to prod myself to remember them when I think of this year’s animated film. But I’m sure Brave will make me forget all about it.

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