With some movies, you can just tell the producers fell in love with a high concept and hired a creative team to work backward from there. Take, for example, Illumination Entertainment’s first animated feature, Despicable Me, which tells of a classical Bond villain adopting three little girls. The details of how we get to this point don’t make much sense: he needs them to infiltrate the lair of a competitor who’s obsessed with Girl Scout cookies. However, once everyone comes together, so does everything else.
It helps that Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, the screenwriters hired to work backward from there, take the time to set up the dynamic even before the relationship occurs, introducing Gru (Steve Carell), presumably named after the Russian intelligence agency, not as a sadistic megalomaniac but as a misguided loner who bears the scars of childhood neglect and actually has to work at just being an average jerk. He’s even got a Bizarro Jiminy Cricket christened Dr Nefario (Russell Brand) to lovingly keep him on the wrong track.
Steve Carell plays up Gru’s vulnerability, making the eventual tender moments all the more effective, but I question his decision to voice him as a goofy Eastern European immigrant who constantly gets his idioms wrong. The joke gets old by the end of the first act and proves a needless distraction from a character struggling for emotional weight. Though it may seem counterintuitive, there is such a thing as “too cartoony” even in a cartoon. At times, all the cutesy affectations and lighthearted pop culture winks in Despicable Me come across like pouring extra corn syrup in a bowl of sugar-coated Frostios.
Fortunately, directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud take a more grounded approach with the three orphans: Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), the wounded elder sister; Edith (Dana Gaier), the middle-child rebel; and Agnes (Elsie Fisher), the unicorn-obsessed preschooler. Yes, the girls are unbearably adorable, especially the youngest (“It’s so fluffy!!!”), and one could argue that together they amount to only one full character. However, the children’s longing for a family feels genuine, as does their initial distrust of Gru, bringing a much needed tension to the proceedings, the sort that can really pull at one’s heartstrings.
The same regrettably cannot be said of the film’s prerequisite villain, Vector (Jason Segel), who steals Gru’s evil scheme to miniaturise the moon along with a secret Chinese ray gun crucial to the operation. On the one hand, I’m grateful the filmmakers have resisted the urge to pit our anti-hero against yet another shallow super-spy caricature. On the other, the baddy’s bowl cut, orange jumpsuit, and nasally affectations just scream, “Loser”, making it difficult for the viewers to take him as a serious threat and invest in the stakes. I do like the squid gun though.
More to the point, Despicable Me doesn’t pertain to high octane drama. It’s a bright, irreverent comedy that trades in childlike exuberance and extreme cuteness as exemplified by the minions, pill-shaped creatures that can best be described as a cross between Joe Dante’s gremlins and the squeaky aliens in Toy Story (1995). Proving a collective stroke of genius, the critters fill every corner of the screen with charm and energy, capitalising on the film’s minimalist designs and acting as a bridge for some 3D antics breaking the fourth wall.
Indeed, here we have another feature that can find nothing better to do with RealD technology than to dangle random objects at our faces. Is that so wrong though? Despicable Me may not take animation to the next level or challenge our perceptions of the medium the way Wall-E (2008) and Up (2009) do, but, with a budget of only $69 million, it manages to pull at our heart strings and entertain us for an hour and a half without ever resorting to cynical Hollywood in-jokes or potty humour (I’m looking at you, Shrek series). And, man, has it got a great high concept!