This post is part of The Month of Animated Features.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 4)
It never brought tears down my face the way Up and Toy Story 3 did. It never soared away with my heart the way How to Train Your Dragon did. But Despicable Me’s manic silliness, unmatchable cuteness, and comedy-powered voice cast overcome some tonal confusion to make it a worthy entry into the canon of animated film that has been simply outstanding the past two years.
If nothing else, Despicable Me is, at its best, a wacky change of pace from fairy tale-style and heart-tugging stories. This is a film that is derived more from Tom and Jerry than Snow White. The visual set pieces have excellent comic timing and often revolve around one character one-upping another to humorous effect. There are throwaway sight gags and visual punchlines galore, and they’re entertaining enough that I’ll definitely see this movie again when it comes to the local discount theater or rent it when it comes out on DVD.
A large portion of the film’s charm comes from Steve Carrel, the voice actor for lead anti-hero Gru. He gleefully throws himself into a role whose ambiguously Eastern European accent sounds like it was learned from years of watching spy movie villains. More than just his enthusiasm, it’s the way he hilariously alters English syntax that makes every noise out of Gru’s mouth a treat. (After a young girl says “Pretty please!,” he responds that “The physical appearance of the ‘please’ does not matter!”)
The film starts with Gru, the old-fashioned villain — he carries a mace to the front door when the doorbell rings — having his thunder stolen by snotty up-and-comer Vector, voiced by my personal favorite comedy actor, Jason Segel. While Segel does decent work, he doesn’t seem like a great fit for the character, who is inconsistently characterized by the film.
Gru winds up responsible for possibly the three most adorable girls in the history of animation, especially little Agnes who is fixated on fluffy unicorns. The little girls steal any scene they’re in, particularly any scene in which Agnes plays an important role.
The pill-shaped little minions I’m mixed on, though. While they provide a springboard for some great, Looney Tunes-inspired action, they seem a bit too calculated in their cuteness. I enjoyed them, but not to the level that I enjoyed the roles of Gru and the three girls, who are not only the funniest characters but the heart of the film.
Another part of the movie that I remain on the fence about are the more emotionally-manipulative elements. The little kids and minions in the film are heartrendingly lovable, yet the film puts them through such trials as being put in a “box of shame” in a cardboard box at an orphanage. You can hear the “awwww!”s in unison. Then, when Agnes offers up her piggy bank, you get more “awwww!”s but in a different tone. There’s so much “awwww”ing in this movie, it almost detracts from the clever caper elements and the more earned moments of emotional gratification towards the end of the film.
Several of the backup characters are a bit inconsistent in their writing. As I previously mentioned, Vector is troublesome. The film couldn’t quite settle between dastardly prodigy and spoiled brat. He’s also the victim of some of the unfunniest moments of the film: The butt-on-keyboard gag that seems to be one of media’s recurring images of the film, in particular, annoyed me.
The Russell Brand-voiced mad scientist who aids Gru has some hilarious lines, but the character seems a bit uneven. At times, he’s pathetically harmless. At others, effortlessly manipulative of Gru. Still, Brand is probably the second-best adult voice actor here behind Carell.
The animation is uniformly strong, and I want to give my special compliments to the character designers. (Where were these guys when How to Train Your Dragon was hiring?) My favorite was the distinctive Gru, who is ugly and pointed enough to make him unlikeable. Had the writing lacked sharpness or underlying warmth for the character, or Carell botched the voice work, it would’ve prevented the entire film from working. Almost every character here is memorable and unique.
But the character design dwells on wide array of styles, which highlights the most troubling part of the film for me: Despicable Me is about three or four movies struggling to come out on top. Is it a dark comedy that’s reminiscent of Burton if he were obsessed with Cold War espionage instead of the macabre? Is it a silent sight-gag comedy that is inspired equally by Looney Tunes and Wall-E? A generic DreamWorks comedy, polished but unmemorable like Madagascar or Over the Hedge? Or a Pixar-esque tale that maturely extols the healing power of involved parenthood?
The answer is all of the above, for better and worse. At times, I loved Despicable Me for pulling this balancing act off well. At others, I was bothered by its split personality. But most of the time, I was laughing too hard at a unicorn song, a floating minion, or the effects of a shrink ray to really care one way or the other.
A few more notes:
- Despicable Me has the first fart joke in an animated movie that’s made me laugh in a long time, probably going back to Shrek (“I know what I smell, and it was no brimstone!”)
- The closest cousin to this animated film might be last year’s superior Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which has a similar level of mania but more convincing execution.
- Count me in the small camp of viewers who did not dig the movie’s music. As How to Train Your Dragon reminded me a few months ago (still listening to the score daily, by the way), good music can make or break the tone of the movie. The hip hop beats and an unadventurous score should have been replaced with something more understated; the music should have evoked Spy vs. Spy instead of yet-another-animated-family comedy.
- I love having Julie Andrews and Kristin Wiig in the cast, and the film surely deserves some strong female figures, but their characters (Gru’s mom and an orphanage administrator) came across as muddled and unnecessary.
- The 3D in this movie seems like it’s mostly there for 3D’s sake rather than for the benefit of the movie, unlike (again) How to Train Your Dragon. Still, it’s impressive and immersive, particularly the post-credits minion sequence.
- “It’s so fluffy!” trumps “Is it better to live as a monster or die as a good man?” from Shutter Island as my favorite movie line of the year.