Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig, Danny McBride, Miranda Cosgrove
(Universal; US theatrical: 9 Jul 2010 (General release); 2010)
Some ideas don’t need “improving.” They could make fine entertainments all their own. Someone needed to tell that to the makers of the new CG family film Despicable Me. A movie about competing super villains already has a built-in fanbase, a comics raised constituency more than happy to embrace the misadventures of some high-minded, accident prone bad guys. Toss in an alternative reality where an evil bank backs their various nefarious activities and a competitive drive toward stealing the moon and you have the makings of a fun frolic that easily crosses genre lines - part anarchy, part adventure. So what does this otherwise capable movie do? It tries to humanize its main baddie by giving him three little girls to care for, rendering the main portion of the narrative a non-stop collection of cute. What should be funny and biting is instead cloying and occasionally smothered in syrupy schmaltz.
This doesn’t make Despicable Me a bad movie, just one that doesn’t quite understand where its potential joys truly lie. Watching an old fussbudget like Gru (voiced with accented perfection by Steve Carrell) work his way around three adorable urchins is a lot like observing kittens playing the piano - it’s button adorable initially, but rather limited in its returns. By the third or fourth “aw shucks” moment, we want to get back to the business at hand. In this case, our amiable anti-hero wants to commit a crime so great it will draw attention away from his younger rival Vector (an unrecognizable Jason Segel). When said competitor makes off with a much needed shrink ray gun, Gru goes to a local orphanage and takes custody of a trio of tykes - Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Elsie Fisher). He will use them to infiltrate Vector’s lair, giving him access to the weapon, and its lunar diminishing powers.
Despicable Me definitely feels like a film working against itself and at cross purposes. On the one hand you have an Incredibles-like post modern update on the notion of evildoers and their lives outside of chaos. Gru lives in an Addams Family inspired house in the middle of the suburbs, heads to a local coffee shop to get his morning pick-me-up, and frequents an underground laboratory complete with hundreds of comic yellow minions and a senile old assistant named Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand, bringing the batty). The level of invention in these moments is fascinating, from the special incomprehensible language the Pac-Man like workers use to the various dastardly deeds Gru takes credit for. Like last year’s excellent Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, there is a cleverness to the conceit that helps overwhelm the sometime formulaic feeling to the story.
After all, we know that the main thrust of the narrative will come down to Gru vs. the girls, Gru vs. his love for these perky little bratlings, and Gru vs. the not quite what he seems Vector. There will be a big time action set piece (and there is), random silliness and slapstick (enter the minions) and the crucial change of heart that turns the malevolent meanie into a newborn nice guy - sort of. Toss in the 2010 movie mandate known as 3D (effective but not essential) and a couple of clever surprises, and you’ve got a hit - and true to its world, Despicable Me is poised to be big. One can easily see an entire series of films following the adventures of this perplexed parent, his temporary offspring, and the various forces of good and evil that inhabit this seemingly infinite world.
But that doesn’t mean we will be laughing all the way. For some reason, Despicable Me doesn’t come across as consistently funny. Instead, we snicker at some of the sight gags and marvel at a few of the more ingenious takes on the material. Carrell voice work is wonderful, turning the character into something akin to a bumbling Bavarian brainiac, and the minions surely deliver their fair share of giggles. Even Brand, relegated to playing the requisite fly in the ointment, finds novel ways of turning Dr. Nefario into a hoot. But what’s missing here is a sense of balance. There is no hero to take on Gru and his designs, and Vector is a weak adversary at best. While he comes across as the Eddie Deezen of the diabolical, he doesn’t get enough backstory to make him really viable. No matter the amount of nerd spin Segel puts on the performance, Vector comes across as merely minor.
As does most of the story, if you think about it. The whole “stealing the Moon” angle is treated as an afterthought most of the time, even when it actually happens (sort of). Similarly, the writers get Gru and the gang out of any horribly hot water by making the shrink ray less than perfect in its power. As for the kiddies - well, they do make excellent cookie salesmen, but the situation that they find themselves in (under the bovine thumb of a portly prison matron like orphanage director named Miss Hattie) seems lifted from a My Little Pony version of Charles Dickens. Sure, the filmmakers try to address said elements by cracking wise within the story itself (one of the girls makes a clever Annie reference upon viewing Gru’s house), but they are really out to play on your emotions, not your sense of humor.
This makes Despicable Me a potent partial success. Every time the focus stays on our lead and his legion of screaming yellow zonkers, we sit back in satisfied cinematic bliss. Even when he’s taking on Vector in some ridiculous game of wicked one-upmanship, we enjoy the attempted reinvention. But then the little ladies show up with their squeezable cheeks and Pity Kitty eyes, and the message to melt counteracts all the comedy. We don’t mind being sold a sentimental bill of goods, but when you advertise something as a rollicking bit of animated anarchy, delivering something significantly less rousing is a letdown. Despicable Me is one of the better CG efforts in a while. It may tickle your heartstrings more than your funny bone, however.