With most of it now over it’s pretty safe to say that, at least as far as Hollywood is concerned, it’s been a bad year for movies. Every week it has seemed that the truck delivering the prints of the latest offerings from the major studios has delivered less inspired, lazier, fare than it did the week before. Perhaps that’s why, though it is by no means a great film, Despicable Me picked up some very appreciative reviews when it opened in the US late this summer.
Despicable Me centers on Gru (Steve Carrell, with a German accent). He’s an aspiring supervillain with an army of minions, a mad scientist (an oddly cast Russell Brand as the elderly Dr. Nefario), and a plan to steal the moon, unfortunately he can’t get a bank loan, and his nemesis Vector (Jason Segel) has stolen the shrink ray he needs to get his plan to work. When Gru sees Vector let three orphans (Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaeir and Elsie Fisher) into his house to sell him cookies, he adopts the children so he can use them to steal back the shrink ray.
From there I’m pretty sure that the film will hold few surprises, it’s just another variation on that ancient cinematic trope of the cute kid who manages to warm the hard, hard heart of a reluctant father figure. That said, it’s done with style, heart and plenty of humour, so even though you’ll get to every story beat long before the film does, it’s hard to mind very much, because for the most part the ride is rather good fun.
The design of the film is especially strong, with a bright, cartoony, sensibility which retains just enough of a real world feel to keep the film’s feet on the ground enough to make the more emotional parts of the story (Gru’s relationship with the kids) play at a somewhat realistic level without feeling out of place. This is, though, a more heightened universe than that of The Incredibles and that shows through in things like the design of the various props (Gru’s car, for example) and the fact that Gru can get shot by a large array of missiles and emerge, Tom and Jerry like, with no more damage than a sooty face. The set pieces are often entertaining, seldom more so than the sequence in which Gru steals back the shrink ray from Vector, which boasts some lovely, Looney Tunes inspired, visual humour, and the 3D, though it adds little to anything other than a brief sequence on a rollercoaster, is well implemented and often put to interesting use in the more action led scenes.
That said, the heart of the film is the relationship between Gru and the orphan girls; Margo, Edith and Agnes. These scenes are where the script and performances are at their best, as the film does take the time to credibly build up Gru’s connection to the girls, without losing sight of the fact that he is, after all, a supervillain. Carrell is pretty good (though the German accent is as inessential an addition as Mike Myers’ comedy Skuttish was to Shrek), but it is the performances of the young actresses playing the girls – and especially Elsie Fisher as the adorable, unicorn obsessed, Agnes, whose “It’s so FLUFFY!!” still made me laugh, even though it’s been in every one of the films trailers – that really sell this part of the story. I found myself warming to them along with Gru, and it’s this that really lifts Despicable Me beyond some of the lazier Pixar wannabe stuff out there, as well as ensuring that adults obliged to take their kids along to the film won’t just have paid ten pounds for a nap.
While there is much here that works well, there is also much that doesn’t. The big problem is a lack of any credible antagonist; it’s okay that Gru really isn’t that evil, but the fact that his fellow aspiring supervillain Vector seems just as incompetent and, like Gru, mischievous rather than evil means that the climax of the film is even lower stakes than you would expect. Russell Brand also falls curiously flat, you’d think he’d be perfect mad scientist material, but Dr. Nefario is neither mad nor nefarious enough, and the voice always sits uncomfortably with the character design. Though they’ve been a focal point of the marketing, and kids will likely enjoy them, I found Gru’s cloned yellow minions rather irritating. If they had been used only a handful of times they might have been amusing (think of the green aliens in the Toy Story series), but as a sort of slapstick chorus line throughout the whole film they began to grate on me. Sadly Despicable Me is saving the worst for last. I thought that in the ten years since the first Shrek we had got past the obligatory, unmotivated, dance and karaoke scene to end a CG animated movie, but sadly that appears not to be case. This is a real shame, because though bits of it clunk I was on board with the film until that very moment, my problems with it largely ironed out by the charm of what did work. Lose those last couple of minutes and you’d have a much better film overall.
Despicable Me is fine. Take the kids, they’ll enjoy it, you won’t hate it, the biggest problem for an adult audience is likely to be that it’s just not Toy Story 3.