Despicable Me: The Despicable Are Rather Amicable
While it’s unlikely that anything about Despicable Me, the first full-length animated feature from Illumination Entertainment, will blow you away, it’s impossible not to find it likable and charming. It’s full of bouncy music, silly dialogue and sight gags, and characters who are cute without being overly manipulative. It stays firmly within its mold and never attempts to be unpredictable, but it’s all very agreeable. It’s the cartoon equivalent of a B-movie– it knows what it is, what pleasures it’s trying to deliver, and it achieves its goals. It’s a clear notch below Pixar, but it immediately shows that Chris Meledandri, creator of Ice Age and CEO of Illumination Entertainment, has a good knowledge of what works in the marketplace and on the screen. This could be the studio to finally pass Dreamworks and compete for the #2 spot on the computer animation list. Despicable indeed.
Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is Evil with a capital E. He gives crying children balloons, only to pop them. He skips in line at the coffeeshops. When parallel parking, he hits other cars with his giant behemoth gas-burner. He relishes every bit of evil he does. One problem: his big schemes haven’t hit the public as hard as he’d like, and a new younger villain named Vector (Jason Segel) stole The Great Pyramid of Giza, earning him the title of Public Enemy #1. However, Gru plans to win the title back by stealing the moon with the use of a powerful shrink ray, but the Bank of Evil– formerly Lehman Brothers– refuses to give him a loan until he obtains the shrink ray. When Vector gets to the shrink ray first, Gru adopts three cookie-selling orphans to help gain access to Vector’s house in order to pull off the scheme. Yet when he grows fonder of the kids than he thought, he begins to wonder if they’re only pawns in his game… or if he actually has a heart.
Carell as Gru twists his funny accent like a pretzel, giving even the most mundane lines a twinge of humor solely through delivery. Through creating Ice Age, Meledandri and Company know that distinctive voices, not merely movie star voices, are what make an animated film work. Though Carell, Segel, Russell Brand, and Will Arnett are all big name comedy stars in their own right, their voices work for their parts, and Segel and Brand are for the most part unrecognizable. Still, the real gift that Meledandri brings is the sight gag. Many sequences feel inspired by Looney Tunes, not unlike the Scrat sequences in the Ice Age films. The opening discovery of the pyramid theft, Gru’s multiple break-ins to Vector’s headquarters, and especially the Minion hijinks have little dialogue and instead rely on visual storytelling. Facial expression, timing, and the element of surprise have all been mastered here.
However, just as in a good Looney Tunes short, there’s an element of familiarity. You know that Gru’ll never get into Vector’s lair, you know that Gru’s old friend will screw up, you know that the kids will be extra cute and win Gru’s heart. It never dives too far into sentimentality, which keeps it from becoming manipulative– you feel the tug on the heartstring when the littlest kid tells Gru she loves him, but they don’t dwell on it. However, since they don’t really go for any true emotion, it doesn’t hit you nearly as hard as Toy Story 3 or How to Train Your Dragon. Yet maybe it’s unfair to compare– one can say Bugs Bunny cartoons on the big screen have never been full of emotion, and thus there’s never been a truly great Bugs Bunny feature film, but does that diminish the fact that he’s funny?
Plus, in terms of sheer business savvy, it’s brilliant: I could easily see Despicable Two and Despicable Three being equally charming, growing in size without losing quality, and the little yellow Minions are funny and memorable enough to be made into stuffed animals and other kids’ merchandise for years to come. When you’re making a first feature, this sort of marketability is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. This is now the second franchise that Meledandri is responsible for, and the second major studio that now has a source of animated film income thanks to him. They’ve also announced a series of Minions-based short films that can perhaps show before their future features– smart move. The Minions are the best non-speaking* characters to hit the big screen since Scrat, and there’s no question they could support a long string of cartoons. Perhaps the business side of things is why the movie never elevates past being a lark. But at the end of the day, is settling for being fun really so despicable?