01/08/2010. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper
Gru, a super-villain of the James Bond film type, goes into competition with another super-villain, Vector. Gru needs three little girls from a local foundling home to penetrate Vector's stronghold. But Gru does not count on the power of three cute little girls to transform his life. Pixar raised the bar even higher for digital animation films with Toy Story 3 and it is well out of reach for Illumination Entertainment, the producers of Despicable Me.
This film is mildly amusing, but by next week I probably will not remember anything about it.
Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
If Despicable Me had been made ten years ago, it probably would have been much more enjoyable. Coming less than a month after Toy Story 3 with its themes of loyalty, obsolescence, and abandonment, Despicable Me seems like awfully thin entertainment. If I were to give a one-sentence theme to Despicable Me it would be the power of affection and cuteness to overcome evil. Hoping not to prejudice my case, I do not believe in the theme and it was even less credible in the film. In spite of a few obscure jokes, Despicable Me is predominantly a children's film with sufficient vulgarity to keep the kids entertained.
The story begins with the discovery that a pyramid in Egypt has been stolen and replaced with an inflatable imitation. Everybody is unhappy, but not the least is the super-villain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell). This nasty louse fancies himself the world's greatest villain, but here some other villain has outclassed him. Gru has to do some quick planning for an even bigger heist. He decides he is going to steal the Moon. He has met another super- villain named "Vector" who has a shrinking ray. The ray is just what Gru needs to pocket and transport the moon.
But Gru needs to get into Vector's fortress stronghold. Vector has bought cookies from three cute foundlings: Margo, Edith, and Agnes. Gru can use their cookie delivery as a cover to break into Vector's stronghold, but he has to temporarily adopt Margo, Edith, and Agnes so they will be available for his plan. But that means setting up house for them. He takes them in, but finds that caring for three young girls is more effort than he bargained for. He has to be a father for them. Little does he know the changes three cute little girls can bring. Of course, everybody in the audience knows what changes are in store.
Despicable Me comes from Illumination Entertainment, a new group trying to compete with Pixar Animation. At least these days, what makes a Pixar film work is character. The Pixar writers give considerable thought to who Woody and Buzz are in the Toy Story films. They know who Carl Fredricksen in Up is. And the viewer knows what these characters want and what their worries are on a human level. Illumination has not given similar thought to Despicable Me. Why is Gru the way he is in this film? His mother did not understand him as a child. What he wants now is to steal the moon so that he can keep up with another super-villain.
These are flat ideas. There is no reason to care about Gru. For the writers to so ignore the audience's commitment to the character just is not good enough any more. Gru has created a race of helpers he calls "minions", but they are designed with the same lack of commitment put into the human characters. They are yellow and shaped like a Tylenol capsule. Beyond that they have mouths and each has one or two eyes behind goggles.
There is not much to tell one from another. Compare that to all the minor character toys In Toy Story. One can easily tell them apart and each has a distinguishable personality. Far too little care was given to Gru's minions to make the audience really care about them. Instead of different personalities, it is just one personality over and over. That becomes almost a joke in the film as they all respond to Gru's speeches in exactly the same way.
It might have been better if I did not know who was voicing the main characters. When Gru speaks it is all too easy to picture Steve Carell flexing his voice into a vaguely Russian accent in a way that I do not picture Mike Myers in Shrek. I thought evil Russian accents went out with Boris Badenov and the Cold War. On the other hand I did not recognize Julie Andrews at all as the voice of Gru's mother and it hardly seems to me that such a name actor was needed for the voice.
Some moments of humour and allusions to James Bond films help to lighten the experience of seeing Despicable Me. But digital 3D animation is too expensive a process to waste on such poorly defined and delineated, one-dimensional characters. I rate Despicable Me a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10.
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2010 Mark R. Leeper
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