With the masterful and mature features from Pixar such as Up, DreamWorks finally figuring out storytelling with How to Train Your Dragon and amazing animated films popping out of nowhere like Coraline, it can be easy to forget that the average American animated feature is a derivative, uninspired and lackluster, aimed at the lowest common denominator and sustained on gimmicks such as poor 3D or a toy line.
Despicable Me is one of these features, a reworking of How the Grinch Stole Christmas stretched out to feature length. Gru (Steve Carell) is an evil mastermind who’s yet to pull of his big evil plan. Whether it’s incompetence, bad luck or miscommunication, everything is orchestrated against him. And when a new evil mastermind, Vector (Jason Segel), arrives on the scene Gru has one last shot at going big before falling into oblivion and, more importantly, losing his membership at the bank of evil.
The film sustains itself on sight gags, sometimes literally, instead of crafting a compelling plot. Most of the main progression of narrative is happenstance and pure coincidence that strains plausibility to a thread. Take, for instance, Gru’s great deception of the film. He adopts three girls, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) to help him sneak into Vector’s base.
The adoption process is a bit ridiculous, nothing more than a form, resume and interview and he’s the father of three girls. This aside, it’s a bit excessive for Gru to adopt these three girls for such a simple job, especially when he has all these crazy contraptions at his disposal. Perhaps he was also thinking of the personal relations benefit of having cute faces to hide his nefarious plan behind, but it’s a contrived plot point at best.
However, this does allow for an amusing series of events where Gru must deal with the everyday troubles of living with kids. Their constant curiosity, desire to touch everything and ability to manipulate him to get whatever they want is amusing. Some of the humor is surprisingly dark given that these children are running around what is essentially furnished as a torture house. What other film makes a visual pun out of the possibility of a dead child? This one does.
It’s the darker elements that will probably amuse the adult audience more. Gru’s gaggle of minions, short stubby, yellow tic-tac looking creatures are gleefully mischievous and evil. They’re also somewhat perverted and do some things that children will, thankfully, not understand. They provide for the most consistent series of laughs with a great blend of physical comedy and visual puns.
At the heart of this film, is that Grinch storyline of a cold-hearted evildoer regaining his heart, soul, childlike wonder or whatever that goopy stuff is makes people go “aww” when they see babies. Gru’s already a bit of a child, but only retains the evil elements such as impatience and selfishness. It’s the girls who show him such things as finding happiness in life’s simplest pleasures and unconditional love. The film lays the sap on heavy, but it doesn’t stop the overall sentiment from being sweet and could possibly result in some gushy feelings if one is predisposed to such things.
Despicable Me does what it’s aiming for: it makes that audience laugh, gives them a sweet little story and crafts some fun sequences. When compared with the past couple of years of American animation, it’s middle of the road, but that doesn’t stop it’s irresistible, childlike charm from being so endearing. It’s a flawed, mediocre, drawn-out affair, but it will probably have its audience breaking out in big grins by the end of the film, which should be more than enough for children of all ages.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing