Saturday, July 31, 2010

Get a Load of Despicable Me

Despicable Me
Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud
Running Time: 95 minutes
Originally Released: July 9, 2010

* * * ½ (out of four)

For the past decade or longer, Pixar has cornered the market on exceptionally good animated family films. Few films in the genre have come even remotely close to possessing the wit and creativity found in a typical Pixar release. Over the last few years, however, that gap has been steadily closing. Although Despicable Me is not an absolute triumph, it is evidence that non-Pixar movies are at least headed in the right direction. What’s more, it does something that even Pixar hasn’t managed to do, which is to provide us with an instantly memorable onscreen villain. The villain in question is Gru, and he reminds us that it’s been all too long since an animated film gave us a bad guy worth relishing.

Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is a supervillain, the kind of bad guy that has big, bad weapons and even bigger, badder aspirations. At first glance, Gru is evil to the core. He hands out balloon animals to children just so he can pop them in the kids’ faces and make them cry. The only thing preventing Gru from being wholly unlikeable is that he’s kind of a doofus. His evilness is offset largely by an inferiority complex that developed during childhood, when Gru’s mother showed little to no interest in her son’s accomplishments. This complex explains Gru’s desire to become the world’s greatest villain, a tough feat now that rival supervillain Vector (voiced by Jason Segel) has successfully stolen Egypt’s Great Pyramid. To top that, Gru needs to do something astronomical—steal the moon, for example. As luck would have it, that’s exactly what Gru plans to do. Having invented a shrink ray that miniaturizes anything it blasts, Gru intends to fly to the moon, shrink it, and pocket it, thereby proving that he is the greatest villain in history.

Helping Gru reach his goal are his minions. Little, yellow, and different, Gru’s minions are pill-shaped beings one can only assume originated from another planet. The minions speak in helium-infused gibberish, though they and Gru understand each other, which is good since the minions are to Gru what North Pole elves are to Santa Clause. And then there are Margo, Edith, and Agnes, the three orphaned girls who serendipitously show up at Gru’s door and try to sell him cookies. Gru has no interest in cookies, but he does take an interest in the girls once a certain light bulb goes off above his head. (We know this because Gru has a tendency of blurting out “light bulb!” whenever he has a good idea.) It seems Vector has stolen Gru’s shrink ray, and three innocent girls selling cookies door-to-door may be just the thing that allows Gru to circumvent the outrageous high-tech security system that protects Vector’s fortress. And so, after one short visit to the adoption agency, Gru is welcoming the three apprehensive children into his home as their adoptive father.

Where the film goes from there is fairly obvious, but that doesn’t stop it from being a wholly enjoyable ride. In many respects, Despicable Me is a one-man show, with Gru carrying the film almost exclusively on his own borderline hunchback shoulders. Fortunately for us, Gru is one of the funniest, most fun, and reluctantly charming animated characters to hit the screen in years. He’s certainly the best villain of the new century, and perhaps the only one that stands a decent chance of being remembered many years hence. In this regard, Despicable Me feels like a return to classical animated films, when the villains were iconic enough to transcend the movies that featured them. (When was the last time that happened?) Credit must be given to Steve Carell, who provides Gru’s voice and tactfully refrains from the kind of exaggerated silliness that would render Gru a conduit of slapstick. Instead, Gru is played overwhelmingly straight, which is what makes him so darn funny. With an accent somewhere in the ballpark of Russian, Gru’s clumsy use of contemporary idioms is a comedic highlight of the film. Were Gru portrayed as a bumbling idiot, such humor would have felt forced. Here’s to Carell, then, for giving such a spot-on performance. I dare say Carell has provided one of the most entertaining vocal performances in an animated film since Robin Williams’ turn as the genie in 1992’s Aladdin.

If there are criticisms to be had, one is that Despicable Me isn’t all that inventive, plot wise. Stealing the moon is a modestly clever premise, but it merely sets the stage for some pretty straightforward situational comedy as Gru strives to get his shrink ray back and pull of his stellar heist, adopted children in tow. That Despicable Me isn’t completely innovative hardly matters when you’re having so much fun watching it, but it does explain why the character of Gru is more memorable than the film itself. A second complaint is that the supporting characters are a bit on the dull side. None are particularly notable, though a couple of the vocal performances stand out. Segel adds life to an otherwise uninteresting Vector, while Kristen Wiig provides the next best performance to Carell, playing Miss Hattie, the subtly sadistic headmistress of the orphanage. And finally, although Despicable Me is consistently quite funny, it’s never gut-busting hilarious. For a movie that aims for the moon, the humor is never out of this world.

For the record, I saw the 2-D version of Despicable Me. It’s to the movie’s credit that I never realized I was missing anything, at least until the end credits, when the minions horse around onscreen in ways that are clearly meant to exploit the benefits of 3-D technology. Personally, I’m annoyed by the 3-D trend, and I’ve heard that it diminishes the vibrancy of a film, making the colors feel washed out even though the images are jutting into your face. I purposefully opted not to see the 3-D version of Despicable Me, and not only because I was taking small children with me who wouldn’t have handled the glasses well. That being said, Despicable Me is the first movie that has made me think the 3-D version might be worth trying. In hindsight, I realize there are quite a few moments when that would have been fun.

No comments:

Post a Comment