Leaves the latest Shrek lying in the dirt like a beat-up has-been
Pixar Animation Studios is probably not losing any sleep over this challenge to their supremacy in the animated family-film sweepstakes, but it is safe to say that, with DESPICABLE ME, Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment leap-frog over DreamWorks Animation to take the second-place position, leaving SHREK FOREVER AFTER lying in the dirt like the feeble remnant of a dying franchise that it is. DESPICABLE ME is funny, imaginative, and heartfelt, mixing the different elements smoothly together. Graced with impressive computer-generated animation and sight gags that occasionally suggests a new millennium version of a Tex Avery Looney Tune, DESPICABLE ME also dares to reach whole-heartedly for the sentimental moments, without the nudging and winking that DreamWorks uses to avoid appearing schmaltzy. It’s the best of both worlds, and even if the film never achieves the poignancy of TOY STORY 3’s fiery climax, DESPICABLE ME is in some ways more consistently entertaining from beginning to end.
The story focuses on Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), a criminal mastermind who has recently been upstaged by a new rival, Vector (voiced by Jason Segel). Trying to re-establish himself as #1, Gru hits on a scheme to steal the moon, but he runs short of capital and finds that the Evil Bank (formerly Lehman Brothers) is reluctant to fund someone whose prime may be past. Fortunately, Gru’s minions (yellow creatures who talk gibberish and look the same except that some have only one eye) pitch in to fund the scheme. The only problem is: Gru needs access to Vector’s well-guarded home. He achieves this by adopting three orphans who are scheduled to deliver some cookies they sold to Vector. At first, Gru sees the trio only as tools in his scheme, to be ditched the minute they have served their purpose. Will he have a change of heart…?
You don’t need a degree in screen writing to answer that last question. In essence, DESPICABLE ME is a CHRISTMAS CAROL-type story about a reprobate who finds redemption, the difference being that, instead of three spirits, it is three orphans who serve as the catalyst for change. One of the film’s little triumphs is that Gru is lovable from scene one, long before his transformation. For him, villainy seems to be a just career, not a matter of malicious intent (in fact, the woman running the orphanage seems far more wicked that Gru).
Judging from the numerous flashbacks to his youth, we surmise that mostly Gru is hoping to achieve something memorable that will finally impress his emotionally distant mother (voiced by Julie Andrews). The shock of seeing the younger version of the character performs a function similar to the one seen with Anton Ego in RATATTOUILLE, although here it is used throughout, not as a last-minute surprise. (To stretch a point, Oliver Stone used a similar technique in a vain attempt to generate sympathy for the title character in NIXON.)
DESPICABLE ME is filled with hilarious visuals: some of them are delightfully over the top (as befits an animated comedy in 3-D), and some of it is so subtle you might miss it. (Although Gru’s minions are virtually identical, he has no trouble telling them apart, casually calling them by first name.) There is also brilliantly realized action-packed finale involving high-speed airships that works as well as any live-action scene you will see this summer.
Unlike recent live-action 3-D films (especially those converted in post-production), DESPICABLE ME actually puts the process to good use in scenes like this, and just to drive the point home, there is an amusing closing credits sequence that has the minions climbing a ladder out into the audience and springing off as if it were a diving board.
Although Gru’s redemption is predictable, it works perfectly on screen, thanks to a clever script, which knows when and how to push the right emotional buttons. DESPICABLE ME is not afraid to lay it on thick, but it goes just far enough to elicit a tear and a sigh, not a derisive guffaw. The film has clearly been designed with the family audience in mind, offering elements that will appeal to both children and adults; the film’s triumph is that it does not feel cynically calculated, and whether or not you are a child or have children of your own, you will be as delighted as any ten-year-old. This is one time, when the final-scene hint of a sequel actually engenders a welcome sense of anticipation.
DESPICABLE ME (July 9, 2010). Directed by Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud. Screenplay by Ken Daurio & Cinco Paul, story by Sergio Pablos. Voices: Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Elsie Fisher, Danny McBride.