Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
July 2010

Root for the bad guy. . .

. . . except, well, the bad guy isn't all that bad in undercooked, but enjoyable, 'Despicable Me'

Despicable Me
Universal Pictures
Director: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud
Screenplay: Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul
Starring: The voices of Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Geier, Elsie Fisher, Will Arnett and Kristen Wiig
Rated PG / 1 hour, 35 minutes
Opened July 9, 2010
(out of four)

What could Despicable Me have done better? Well, for starters, let's rephrase the argument. It's not so much a matter of "better," but of more. This movie, for all its charms, could have done so much more. Here's a film with a diabolical super-villain as its hero - think over-the-top James Bond-style baddie - and yet we don't spend very much time seeing him be a super-villain. Once the three adorable little orphans show up at his doorstep, we know that his soul will be softened, his heart will grow three times, and his days of embodying pure evil will be over.

Now, the predictability of the narrative is not the problem. After all, if all that mattered in a movie was simply finding out what happened next, we'd never watch anything more than once, would we?

But with Despicable Me, it's the core idea - the film's basic support system - that seems diminished. We learn of the super-villain exploits of Gru (Steve Carell) only through the framed newspaper clippings that adorn his home (a foreboding anachronism inside a pastel suburbia).

Beyond that, we only know that he's jealous of a hotshot new villain named Vector (Jason Segel), who has just stolen the Great Pyramid and - in one of the film's better visual gags - camouflaged it against the sky outside his fortress, complete with fake painted clouds.

But during this set-up, we never get to actually see Gru do anything worthwhile, villain-wise, which makes his eventual transformation into Good Guy far less potent than it might have been. It feels like the story's dark undercurrents have been stripped down. Perhaps the studio and/or filmmakers simply felt that establishing Gru's villainy in too much detail would make it difficult to sell his metamorphosis.

Well, poppycock. Look no further than the best example of this sub-subgenre, Chuck Jones' great How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, to see how dark, sinister and accessible you can be, all at once. The Grinch was gleefully evil, right down to the bone, nearly until the end, and his transformation was utterly convincing. (And all that in less than a half-hour!)

Gru, on the other hand, never feels like that much of a villain at all. It's a shame, too, since the filmmakers nailed all the details that could have made him a great one. The exaggerated features (perfectly round head, beak-like nose, massive upper body, tiny legs). The absurdity of the complicated and technologically advanced booby traps and weapons that fill Gru's house and underground laboratory. Even his cartoonishly evil accent - once again, calling to mind a Bond villain. All of that combines to make Gru a very entertaining character - if, still, not quite what he could have been.

All this negativity about the drawbacks, however, distract from the reality that Despicable Me remains a warm and amusing comedy. The opening 20 or 25 minutes of set-up and character introduction may be far too rushed, but the film eventually finds itself a nice little groove and is a pleasure to sit through from then on.

Directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud pepper the screen with nice idiosyncratic details and visual gags, and the movie's unofficial stars - the Metropolis-esque underground minions, with their unintelligible dialogue - provide it with a touch of the gleefully absurd. The copy-machine gag (have I said too much already?) - so fantastically out of place - is probably my favorite of the minions' many great moments.

Despicable Me also boasts strong voice performances from a number of great comic actors. I always scratch my head when a trailer heavily advertises its voice talent, as if name recognition is what really matters when it comes to making and marketing a good animated film. (I mean, look at Pixar movies like Up and WALL-E - the biggest names in the voice cast are the likes of Christopher Plummer and Sigourney Weaver.)

But Despicable Me gets its money's worth, with Carell finding a perfect balance between over-the-top parody and human pathos, and Will Arnett - as the CEO of the Bank of Evil (which provides loans for all the world's super-villains) - doing his patented Will Arnett Thing. (He's found a nice little second niche in voice acting after similarly impressive turns in Horton Hears a Who!, Monsters vs. Aliens and Ratatouille.)

The most curious development about Despicable Me, given its premise and the arc of its main character, is the instant sequel talk that it garnered. I mean, our anti-hero is no longer despicable, now is he? What's he gonna do the second time around - turn into a genocidal madman? Host a political talk show? Or will he just start to help fight new super-villains? One way or another, I suppose there's enough enjoyment with these characters to warrant another outing. It's just a shame that Gru, to our eyes, never got to be all [the evil] that he could be.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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