Despicable Me (United States, 2010)

July 08, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Despicable Me Poster

Seen in standard (non-IMAX) 3-D.

2010 has not been a vintage year for movies in general, but it has been an uncommonly good year for animated films. With Toy Story 3 leading the way, the latest crop of big screen animated fare has emphasized the adage that these cartoons aren't just for kids. The dark horse - in more ways than one - in the 2010 summer animated derby is Universal Pictures' Despicable Me and, although the animated style isn't as crisp or enticing as that of Pixar's Toy Story 3 or the Dreamworks duo of How to Train Your Dragon and Shrek 4, the movie has it where it counts: in the heart and mind. This is a smartly written comedy with a soft emotional core. It doesn't tug at the heart strings with the force of Toy Story 3, but it's nevertheless satisfying in an affecting way. Perhaps best of all, this is a rare instance in which the 3-D, while not an asset, is at least not a detriment. If you want to pay the extra money to wear the glasses, at least you're not being subjected to a subpar viewing experience.

The lead character in Despicable Me is Gru (voice provided by Steve Carell), a Doctor Evil-type supervillain. Gru, whose career exploits include pilfering the Times Square Jumbotron and the little Statue of Liberty in Las Vegas, has lost his place atop the Bad Guys totem pole when an upstart named Vector (Jason Segel) comes along and snatches the Great Pyramid. Seething, Gru and his scientist cohort Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) arrive at a convoluted scheme: Gru will steal a shrinking ray from the scientists developing it, build a rocket, and use it on the moon. Problems develop when Vector outfoxes him, swiping the shrinking ray instead, then stashes it in a vault in his impregnable fortress. In order to retrieve the weapon, Gru employs a Trojan Horse: he adopts three little orphan girls - Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) - and has them enter Vector's lair by selling Girl Scout cookies. Some of those "cookies" are actually robots that facilitate Gru's entrance. The pint-sized trio, however, prove to have a more formidable impact on their "father" than he could have imagined, and he begins to contemplate attending their dance recital rather than rocketing into space.

Yes, the storyline for Despicable Me is preposterous, but no more so than a movie in which toys come to life or in which animals talk. Like most animated films, this one is less concerned about the primary narrative than it is about the witty asides, sharp dialogue, and building of relationships between the characters. Despicable Me starts out looking like it's going to be a satire of James Bond-type supervillainy but ends up being a Valentine to fatherhood. The movie is less about whether Gru will outduel Vector in his quest to reclaim his #1 Villain position than it is about how his adoption of the three girls transforms him. The central theme of the movie is that the wide eyes of a child can melt even the coldest of hearts. The filmmakers recognize there's truth in that sentiment and understand that most viewers, regardless of their age, will respond to it.

As with nearly every recent animated film, Despicable Me includes slapstick, cute sidekicks (in this case, the oddly-shaped Minions), and asides that only adults will understand ("Bank of Evil -Formerly Lehman Brothers"). The film doesn't work as effectively on multiple levels as Toy Story 3, but it neither bores nor insults older viewers in the way too many live-action "family films" do. It's almost the complete package, and only comes in third (thus far) in the 2010 animated sweepstakes because Toy Story 3 and How to Train a Dragon are so good.

Despicable Me's look is relatively basic, at least insofar as big-budget animated films are concerned, although one of the concluding images (Gru dancing to the Bee Gees) is worth the price of admission. It lacks the rich detail and depth of color that characterize both the Dreamworks and Pixar productions. In a way, this could be seen as an asset because it interferes less with the 3-D process. Despicable Me was developed with 3-D in mind, and there are opportunities when the "fourth wall" is broken with objects flying off the screen at the audience. Still, although the 3-D doesn't do much to enhance the viewing experience, it is at least employed with a degree of proficiency.

The voicework seems like a gathering of Judd Apatow actors and SNL alumni. The lead three - Steve Carell, Jason Segel, and Russell Brand - are known at least in part for their work with Apatow, while Kristin Wiig (who plays the head of the girls' school where the orphans live) and Will Arnett (as Vector's father) have their roots in Saturday Night Live. Miranda Cosgrove, Carly from iCarly, provides a popular voice that kids can relate to. And everyone knows Julie Andrews (as Gru's mother). Brand and Carell show a Mike Myers-like versatility in what they do with their lines - one would never guess it's them if their names didn't appear in the opening credits. Brand sounds more like Dr. Strangelove than himself and Carell appears to be doing a version of Bela Lugosi. (One almost expects him to say, "I never drinkā€¦ wine" at some point, although he doesn't.)

Despicable Me represents Universal's latest attempt to break into an animation field dominated by Pixar/Disney, Dreamworks, and (to a lesser extent) Fox. With the 2010 summer live-action roster showing so much weakness, this presents an opportunity for Despicable Me, which is receiving sufficient marketing and publicity to generate strong public awareness. More importantly, it's the kind of motion picture critics can get behind and a wide range of viewers will enjoy, so there's no reason why this shouldn't become, at worst, a modest success.

Despicable Me (United States, 2010)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2010-07-09
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1