I’ve been looking forward to Despicable Me for a while; having seen trailers, the 3D animated film out of Universal looked like it had the potential to be a lot of fun. While I was far from unhappy with the final product, what seems increasingly to be a universal truth surfaced once again — all computer animated film fare is measured against the visual and storytelling juggernaut that is Pixar… and they remain the unwavering king of the mountain.
Despicable Me is the story of Gru (Steve Carrell), a past-his-prime villain heavy on unsavory aspirations but lacking in execution. One day Gru learns that every baddie, himself included, have been left eating dust when a mystery evil genius steals one of the Great Pyramids. Not content to be outdone, Gru devises a plan to infiltrate a secret base, swipe their experimental shrink ray, and steal the moon.
Of course, before doing this, he needs a little loan from the evil bank that funds the lifestyles of all major villains. There he is introduced to his future nemesis, Vector (Jason Segel), a geeky but resourceful new kid on the block. Being cantankerous and, well — bad, Gru immediately makes an enemy of Vector.
Vector has Gru’s number at every turn, sabotaging all of his plans for world domination with nerd glee. When Vector robs Gru of his own stolen property and stashes it in his impenetrable suburban fortress (super-villains live side-by-side with average citizens), well — if you’ve seen the trailers you get a good idea of what most of the film seems to be about. Gru gets repeatedly blown up, shark-bitten, and junk-punched attempting infiltration.
The story, however — revolves mostly around the interaction of Gru and three little girls of varying ages and cuteness who sell cookies for the orphanage they reside in. Without giving a lot away unnecessarily, the girls are Gru’s ticket to gaining access to what he wants, and he attempts to bend them to his will. What happens for most of the film is formulaic. Gruadopts the girls, they make his life a mess, he hates them, they hate him — slowly the relationship evolves, Gru realizes they’re not so bad and they him — and the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.
There is a danger in telling a story that’s been repeatedly told in one way or another over many years, particularly in this medium, and that’s simply not standing out. The sad truth of the matter is, Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul didn’t do a whole lot to make this film unique. It’s certainly pretty, and the character design is top notch, but the story never elevates itself past something more than just sort of cute. Gruff *insert character* is challenged by *insert adorable character(s)* and finds that *insert heartwarming message*.
Gru is a tame bad guy, plagued with mommy issues, mostly endearing thanks to the excellent voice work of Stevel Carrell. Vector never gets a lot of development, and a huge part of who he is and why he’s that way is sort of ignored for the rest of the film. The girls, played by Elsie Fisher, Dana Gaier, and Nickelodeon staple Miranda Cosgrove are cute, but mostly forgettable. The youngest, Agnes, gets the most traction out of her cuteness with some really great lines (she looooves Unicorns…and kitties).
The most endearing thing about the film, and it’s clear that Universal knows it, are The Minions. Gru’s yellow, gel-cap shaped, gibberish-talking, goofball workers get a lot of mileage out of their slapstick. They’re cute, their scenes are generally really fun, and they’ll definitely have a life on store shelves and later in toy boxes long after the actual story of Despicable Me has been forgotten.
Still, all that said — I feel like I may be being unfair, and the fault rests singularly on Pixar.
Pixar films have set a standard and an expectation that has so colored my demands of computer animated films, that when others vying for their piece of the pie toss their hat into the ring and don’t hit my particular benchmarks, I’m disappointed. I expect a great film that kids will love, laugh at, that doesn’t treat them like they’re imbeciles (I’m looking at you, Barnyard), and still engages me as an adult. The last may be a problem. Pixar does a fantastic job of blending their stories and their visuals — the kids get their laughs, and we get our inside-joke chuckles and pop culture references that the kiddos are oblivious to. I expect a tight story with threads that are sufficiently tied up once the movie credits roll.
That’s my expectation, fair or not — and I simply didn’t get that wink and nod from Despicable Me, and there were story elements that simply bothered me. Before Gru sweeps them up for their adventure, the girls are beholden to Miss Hattie (an unforgivably underutilized Kristen Wiig), the orphanage owner who forces the children living under her roof to sell cookies for personal profit. What happens when they have a bad sale day? They’re put in a box for an undetermined amount of time.
Kids in attendance may completely forget about those details once the girls get their happy ending, but when the film is over — there is no resolution to that situation. Miss Hattie never gets her comeuppance — she’s still probably forcing kids to work and stuffing them in boxes.
I dunno — that bothers me.
Despicable Me is far from a bad movie. The voice cast is impressive, with a lot of big names in comedy playing small parts, and while I wasn’t rolling in the aisle, I did laugh out loud a few times. Kids will get a kick out of it, and again, they’ll absolutely love The Minions. That said, will I have indelible and warm memories of Despicable Me years from now like I do Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, Toy Story, or WALL-E? Probably not.
Still, I’d take the kids, put on the 3D glasses, and have some fun for ninety or so minutes. During the press junket, Jason Segel said something that I think makes sense in the context of this particular movie. It’s great for families. As a parent, when the film is over and you’re walking out of the theater with your laughing children, you’ve probably had fun because they had fun. That’s good enough. If you’re an adult going as fan of CGI animated films of the Pixar variety however, you’ll be left wanting.
The Upside: The Minions are good times, and Steve Carrell does a fine job in creating a unique voice for Gru that gives him depth.
The Downside: Cute but forgettable, the bar Pixar has set is monumentally high.
On The Side: I didn’t even realize Russel Brand had a fairly significant role in the film until the credits rolled. Fella is a good voice actor.