I am genuinely pleased and surprised that “Despicable Me” is an above-average animated comedy. Pleased because I feel like parents get punished so often walking into the theater for this kind of a film that when they aren’t punished, it is a rare delight. And surprised because Illumination Entertainment is a start-up, a first time animation studio, and getting a movie this right is something that some companies never pull off, let alone the first time they try.
“Despicable Me” is the story of Gru (Steve Carell, using one of the weirdest Eurotrash accents possible), a supervillain who isn’t really very good at his job. He’s a minor key nuisance at best, and he’s finding it increasingly difficult to get the Bank Of Evil to underwrite his efforts. When a new supervillain named Vector (Jason Segel) shows up and starts pulling off the sort of jobs that Gru wishes he could do, Gru realizes that he needs to do something amazing to secure his place in the hierarchy of evil. He launches his biggest plan yet with the help of Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) and his army of Minions, weird little yellow creatures who provide many of the film’s biggest laughs, and in the process, sets off a battle of the bad guys with Vector.
This would be plenty to keep Gru busy, but he faces another challenge at the same time, and it’s far more difficult. Looking for an easy way into Vector’s house, he temporarily adopts three orphan girls named Margo (“iCarly” star Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Elsie Fisher), hoping to use them and their cookie sales as a distraction. Gru doesn’t expect to feel anything towards the girls, and why would he? His own mother (voiced with evident relish by Julie Andrews) was an unfeeling monster, and Gru has no desire to be a father, no inclination to nurture. What we plan and what we accomplish in life are often different things, though, and “Despicable Me” illustrates that with charm and wit to spare.
Unlike “Toy Story 3,” which made incredibly subtle use of the 3D process, “Despicable Me” wants to make sure you get your money’s worth out of that surcharge, and it’s such a great looking movie in so many ways that the 3D doesn’t feel like a gimmick so much as a gorgeous bonus. I really like the human designs in the film, and there are influences ranging from Ken Adam and the early Bond films to German expressionism to Charles Addams in the style of the film. It all works, and it feels like a coherenly-imagined whole, not just a grab-bag of “guess where we stole this from,” which is always a possibility.
The score by Pharrell is fun and light and pop-infused, and it makes a nice counterpoint to the film’s more intentionally villainous moments. The entire voice cast seems to be having an amazing time giving voice to these characters, and even in small roles, performers like Russell Brand and Kristen Wiig score some big laughs. The Minions, of course, have become the emblem for this film, and like “Ice Age,” which turned bit player Scrat into a merchandising superstar, I would expect the Minions will be bigger than any single character from the film in terms of the way kids remember this film. I know that Toshi, since we saw the film a few weeks ago, has been absolutely enthralled by them. The closing credits of the film features some overt 3D jokes, with the Minions struggling to see who can reach furthest into the audience. If you’ve heard about the iPhone app that translates the Minions during the film, it actually only works during this closing credits sequence, and I would imagine it just turns a funny sequence into a funnier sequence. Because I was down for the count with a chest cold all week, I missed a chance to go see a demo of the sequence with the app running, but it sounds to me like it’s just one more joke after a whole volley of jokes, most of which land dead center as intended.
“Despicable Me” may not carry the subtextual depth of the best of Pixar’s output so far, but neither do some of Pixar’s films (this is at least as enjoyable as “A Bug’s Life”), and for once, it is possible to recommend a CGI-animated film that doesn’t have that company’s name burned into it without feeling like I’m asking for adults to settle. “Despicable Me” is genuinely funny, and it avoids the easy cloying sentiment that would be so simple with this premise. Directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud should be proud, and parents everywhere should be relieved.
If you missed my interview with Steve Carell about the film, check it out, and then check out the film, in theaters everywhere now.
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