Forgive me for appearing jubilant, but it thrills me when the wasteland known as children’s entertainment occasionally reveals a treasure. After all, I watch most of the kiddie flicks around here, and most of them offer nothing more than a temporary diversion for those young minds. But the playing field of kiddie flick animated films has finally changed, folks, for it is no longer just a “Pixar takes all” game. Although it’s true that audiences indeed flocked to Toy Story 3 out of nostalgia, it was also a film of “too many missed opportunities.” More specifically in the context of this review, Pixar has turned their attention for many months to an older franchise; in doing so, they’ve stopped moving forth while pausing to leisurely reflect upon the past. This fateful choice has opened a valuable window for opportunistic rival studios to claim some quality control of their own — hence the rise of the recently comparative How to Train Your Dragon (DreamWorks), Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (Sony Pictures), and now Despicable Me (Universal/Illumination) — and has temporarily made this movie critic happy as hell.
As it turns out, Despicable Me is a charming movie that miraculously succeeds (as a whole but when selectively ignoring the pyramid bit) yet owes absolutely nothing to its inept marketing team, who issued a series of trailers that, essentially, vaguely informed the audience of the possibility of a heist film or some 007/Mission Impossible knockoff. To be perfectly blunt, I wasn’t looking forward to this movie at all, but as soon as Despicable Me’s introductory pyramid scene ended, things shifted into a sharp-witted and original story (conceived by Sergio Pablos) about a gleefully anarchic villain, who succeeds in fulfilling his life’s dreams but realizes that the fruits of evil carry a bitter aftertaste and that adding some sugar produces much greater rewards. In a way, Despicable Me examines the inner life of a villain (which is somewhat comparable to a reversal of The Incredibles) while unapologetically borrowing from pre-existing tales. Any and all likenesses may not be purely coincidental, but the filmmakers don’t exhibit a lack of imagination so much as spare the audience some unnecessary groundwork in favor of swiftly moving forth within a character-driven tale. And make no mistake, the main character is quite a remarkable one.
Despicable Me introduces Gru (Steve Carell, phenomenal here), who fancies himself an incorrigible misanthrope and suffers from a grotesque hunchbacked appearance. Now, to label Gru an ogre would work unfair and much too simplistic comparisons to a certain DreamWorks character. Instead, Gru’s much more like the badly-drawn (by Charles Addams, natch) lovechild of Bela Legosi (with clear influences from The Raven and The Invisible Ray), Ricardo Montalban (forget “Fantasy Island” and think Wrath of Khan), Boris Badenov (minus Natasha Fatale), as well as healthy doses of Wile E. Coyote (super genius!) mixed in for good measure.
Of course, this is a kiddie flick, so Gru’s not really a traditional villain (and much too underachieving to be a supervillain) but more of an antihero. His misdeeds — freezing everyone in line ahead of him at the coffee shop or driving a rocket-fueled vehicle that knocks everything out of his way (and thus avoiding parallel parking and traffic jams) — don’t really physically harm anyone. He also steals semiprecious things — replicas of the Statue of Liberty and Eiffel Tower, along with the Times Square NBC jumbotron — that won’t necessarily be missed. Still, most of the time, Gru’s not a terribly likable fellow. During his day-to-day existence, he does mean-spirited things — such as encounter a sobbing child, blow up an animal balloon, and pop it — just for the hell of it. Quite ridiculously, Gru also insists upon living (or rather, sticking out) in idyllic suburbia, where his black house and dried-up lawn conceal many dastardly items, including a panda-skin rug and an iron maiden. These horrible items are just part of the show, however, for the impetus for Gru’s life of villainy lies, naturally, in his childhood, where a father figure is conspicuously absent. Sadly, Gru has made a lifelong effort to make his mother (Julie Andrews, as the opposite of Mary Poppins) proud, and every one of his absurd antics works towards that purpose. The main problem here is that Gru’s particular brand of villainy doesn’t turn a profit, and the Bank of Evil (headed by Mr. Perkins (Will Arnett, once again not failing to disappoint) pulls the plug on financing.
Gru soon discovers that the Bank would rather invest in the scemes of a younger, hungrier villain, which is where Vector’s (the vocally bland Jason Segel) theft of an Egyptian pyramid comes into play. So, Gru hatches a diabolical (for once, suitably so) plan to prove his evil worth. To execute this plan, Gru enlists three adorable orphans — Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) — whom he adopts, only to find his life dictated by ballet rehearsals and whatnot. Yes, these girls are impossibly adorable, but the eldest one tempers the younger two with a world-weary dose of reality. And of course, there are Annie references, but these orphans are far less annoying and (even better) don’t sing. Obviously, Gru is not the ideal father; he puts the girls to sleep in detonated bombs while assuring, “Good night. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite. There are literally thousands of them. And there’s probably something in your closet.” However, Carell — voicing the character with an eccentric Eastern European (or, more specifically, vaguely Romanian with a clear Russian influence) accent of sorts — works some serious magic and handles the role in such an offbeat way that the character is damn near irresistible.
One barely even notices that a very brisk 95 minutes quickly passes by as Gru is aided by his assistant, Dr. Nefario (a surprisingly restrained Russell Brand, possibly channeling Dr. Strangelove) and an army of Twinkie-like minions who provide “Three Stooges”-esque comic relief. Visually speaking, Despicable Me also does a fine job by combining old-school touches with the obligatory technology that contempary audiences would demand. A visit to an amusement park includes a rollercoaster ride that, in 2D, jolts the stomach just fine, so one can easily skip the 3D premium charge. Just don’t miss the movie itself.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.