At The Picture Show
Root for the bad guy. . .
. . . except, well, the bad guy isn't all that bad in undercooked, but enjoyable, 'Despicable Me'
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,
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