Despicable Me Movie Review (Mania.com)
Review Date: Thursday, July 08, 2010
Despicable Me suffers the grave misfortune of opening in the shadow of Toy Story 3. It’s not up for that kind of competition and its tweaking of Pixar’s famous opening logo invites the wrong sorts of comparisons. Toy Story 3 is a masterpiece; Despicable Me is just decent entertainment. Had it opened later this fall, its genuine good qualities might have flourished more readily. As it stands, it becomes tougher to accept the film for its own merits.
Yet merits it has, and in no small amounts. While its story betrays little originality and its characters have the sheen of the perfunctory to them, it perseveres by approaching the material with enthusiasm and vigor, as well as an appropriate sense of the absurd. It shows us a world where mad scientists dwell in the suburbs alongside the hapless civilians they hope to terrorize, plotting their Byzantine schemes and stealing ever larger national treasures in an effort to show each other up. Our “hero” Gru (voiced by Steve Carrell) has been king of the hill for a long time, but competition now appears in his rearview mirror. The delightfully obnoxious Vector (voiced by Jason Segel)--a man for whom locker room wedgies were invented--dims his light by pulling off the greatest theft known to man. Eager to regain his former glory, Gru intends to steal the moon--literally--but his complicated plan involves adopting three orphan girls form the local shelter. Lo and behold, the little tykes end up touching his heart in ways he hadn’t expected.
Suffice it to say, the notion of a cold soul melted by dewy-eyed waifs has been scraped to the bedrock and then some. You can actually see the sparks fly as Despicable Me skids along the rocky precipice of horrid cliché. Directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud save the day in their application of the little details. The uniformly clever dialogue delivers its share of kicks without overshadowing the characters, while a plethora of quiet sight gags make good use of the 3D format (for a change). The villainous gadgets and vehicles smack ominously of Incredibles envy, but still generate their own personality and flair.
Then there’s Gru’s minions: those little yellow guys plastered all over every bus stop in America. They aptly illustrate Despicable Me’s primary challenge: to amuse us without becoming grating. The minions look for all the world like a brazen toy tie-in, with their chattery voices and copious pratfalls. A step or two off, and they would become insufferable, either drowning us with schmaltz or irritating us past the point of recovery. But Coffin and Renaud find the right vibe for them: a combination of eagerness, mischief, and well-meaning idiocy that delivers a steady stream of modest laughs.
So too do the directors strike the right emotional tone for the film: shopworn, to be sure, but undeniably sweet. Gru is a grump who delights in ruining everyone’s day, but the people he torments often have it coming, and most of us share his misanthropy to some extent or another. As the girls slowly work on him, he doesn’t change so much as come to appreciate parenthood. Nor do they grow any less sweet and innocent than they were at the beginning. Coffin and Renaud allow the characters to be themselves--letting us revel in Gru’s iconoclasm as much as the orphans’ dogged determination to find someone who loves them. Both sides get what they want without compromising the other.
That may not sound like much, but it keeps the film from succumbing to undue preachiness while allowing its better elements to shine. We’re living in a golden age of animation, spearheaded by Pixar, but involving copious contributions from other talented filmmakers as well. Despicable Me is a minor contribution to that canon at best… and yet it does contribute, if only to provide a decent bit of summer fluff. Going up against Toy Story 3 reveals its disposable nature for all to see, and yet it also illustrates how the filmmakers elevated their game to keep up. Despicable Me has some serious competition this year, against which it can’t hope to triumph. But like its strangely appealing protagonist, it still gives it the old college try… and does a lot better than we might have expected.
Mania Grade: B-
Starring: Steve Carrell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Wiill Arnett, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Elsie Fisher
Written By: Ken Daurio
Directed By: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud