The first half of 2010 was not a vintage year for motion pictures in general, but it was an unusually brilliant period for animated features. With Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon having opened to overwhelming acclaim, 2010’s big-screen animated features continued to emphasise the adage that cartoons are not just for kids. Perhaps the dark horse of the 2010 summer animation derby was Despicable Me, from the recently-established Illumination Entertainment (a subsidiary of Universal). Admittedly, the animation is not as crisp or enticing as that of Toy Story 3 orHow to Train Your Dragon (or even Shrek Forever After), and the feature lacks the dramatic relevance and storytelling potency of Pixar’s regular output. Nonetheless, Despicable Me has it where it counts: it has heart, a clever script, and a handful of big laughs.
The aging Gru (Carell) considers himself to be the greatest supervillain in the world, but the recent theft of Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza by Gru’s rival – Vector (Segel) – leaves him deficient in the amazement department. In an attempt to one-up Vector, Gru devises his greatest scheme to date: to shrink and steal the moon. In order to obtain the requisite shrinking ray, Gru is forced to adopt three adorable orphan girls – Margo (Cosgrove), Edith (Gaier) and Agnes (Fisher) – as a type of Trojan Horse. However, Gru soon finds himself enjoying the lifestyle of a father, which rapidly diverts his attention from his moon-stealing plan, much to the dismay of Gru’s gadget mastermind Dr. Nefario (Brand).
No better word exists to describe Despicable Me than “cute”. The flick is almost unbearably cute – Gru’s yellow minions are cute, the kids are cute, and Elsie Fisher’s line deliveries are impossibly adorable. As with every good animated movie, Despicable Meincludes throwaway gags for the kids in addition to sly asides that only adults will understand. The movie also distinguishes itself by its willingness to provide a more subversive, at times darker brand of humour than the average family film (after a spike-laden coffin closes on one of the orphans, red liquid is seen trickling from underneath and Gru simply says “Well, I suppose the plan will work with two“…before we find out that the girl’s juice box was just impaled). Furthermore, it’s refreshing that screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul tried to keep the picture as free from pop culture jokes as possible, meaning Despicable Me will not look dated for many years. However, while the animation is colourful and appealing, it is comparatively basic; lacking the rich texture and intricate detail which characterises Pixar and DreamWorks animation productions. Yet this barely matters, because the high energy levels and effective pacing more than compensates for this.
Despicable Me was imbued with Looney Toon logic, meaning the moviemakers had the freedom to go nuts with amusingly violent slapstick since none of the characters can actually get hurt. As such, when the kids get a hold of Gru’s weaponry, the results are hilarious rather than cringe-inducing. The only real problem with Despicable Me is that formula takes control once the third act approaches, and the emotional arc is too on-the-nose. There is never a great deal of tension or even any question as to whether the film is headed, though this seems like a curmudgeonly thing to complain about considering this is a family movie. At the very least, Gru’s inevitable transition from supervillain to father is funny, somewhat believable, and, yes, even heart-warming. Naturally,Despicable Me does not work as effectively on multiple levels as Toy Story 3, but the film neither bores nor insults mature-age viewers in the way that too many family films do. Despicable Me is almost the complete package, and its flaws only emerge when it’s placed alongside the very best of the animation realm.
A visual blend of Uncle Fester (The Addams Family) and Danny DeVito’s Penguin from Batman Returns, Gru is one of the most interesting and memorable animated characters in recent memory. Luckily, Steve Carell’s vocal performance (a self-proclaimed mix of Ricardo Montalban and Bela Lugosi) is excellent. Also fortunate is that Gru is just one of several memorable characters. The orphans who unwittingly get caught up in Gru’s plan are derivative but endearing – especially the unicorn-loving Agnes, whose cuteness is borderline illegal – and the vocal performances are spot-on. Meanwhile, Vector is a great villain – there’s an almost childlike mentality to his actions, with a boastful nature begging to be punished. Jason Segel’s interpretation of Vector is well-judged and amusing, too. Russell Brand also lent his voice to the cast, and he’s practically unrecognisable as Dr. Nefario. All of the actors displayed a wonderful versatility for these roles.
Despicable Me does not hold up as well under close scrutiny as other animated classics. It’s a blast the whole way through – an inspired delight even – but after a few viewings, it becomes clear that the sly laughs are a bit too occasional and that formula strongly takes over in the final act. Still, this is a solid animation effort, and it’s definitely worth it for a family movie night.