This “animation corner” will be a semi-regular, column featured on CriterionCast.com, where we look at past and current animated films, in Ryan’s ongoing attempt to get Criterion to include a piece of animation in their Collection.
As we have said time and again, throughout our Disc 2 episodes, the Summer of 2010 has been, for the most part, disappointing. I say for the most part because just a few weeks back we bore witness to the incredible Toy Story 3, a touching, visually stunning, third chapter in Pixar’s flagship work. Many studios have attempted to take on the titan that is Pixar, with their own 3D animated films. From Madagascar and Ice Age, to the recent critical successes of Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon, the battlefield is strewn with clones, consistently defeated critically, when positioned against those animation geniuses from Emeryville.
Earlier this year, some odd trailers started popping up in front of movies, featuring a clueless young boy, who, while visiting the pyramids in Egypt with his family, stumbles across the shocking discovery that someone has stolen the monuments, only to replace them with large balloon replicas. The characters were oddly stylized, compared to the recent trend to move towards more naturalistic humans in these animated stories. Oddly stylized in that they were blocky, more cartoonish, harsh edged, caricatures of real people. The initial trailers hinted at the fact that the movie, titled Despicable Me, would highlight the villain that had stolen the Pyramids, presumably along with other wonders of the world.
Before I get into the meat of this review, let me just say that if you’ve been turned off by the marketing, or non-Pixar-ness of the film, you will be pleasantly surprised by Despicable Me. It was on the darker end of the thematic spectrum, as far as kids movies go, but every single child in my audience was laughing at the physical comedy up on the screen, and the adults were able to get those jokes that may pass over some of the younger ones heads. It was much better than the trailers had led me to expect, and I will honestly go back and see this movie again, either in theaters, or on Blu-ray.
Spoilers ahead for Despicable Me
As I said earlier, the film opens with a tour bus, visiting the pyramids, only to reveal their unlikely and improbable theft. This should immediately tell you something about the level of realism that the world of the film inhabits. This is a world where supervillains have their own banks, armies of minions, and apparently no superheroes to stop them. After the initial set-up, we meet our “hero,” Gru. I use that term lightly, as he is technically a super-villain, complete with freeze rays, mad scientist partners, and an army of yellow, humanoid minions, that speak in a incoherent jabber.
We quickly learn that Gru is not the one who perpetrated the theft of the pyramids, and goes on to plot an even bigger theft, that will dwarf every other villain in the world: he intends to steal the moon, by shrinking it with an experimental shrink ray. While at the supervillain bank, he meets a newcomer to the world of supervillainy, Vector, voiced by Jason Segel. Gru eventually learns that Vector is in fact the one who stole the pyramids in the opening sequence, and a rivalry is quickly formed. After attempting to steal the shrink ray needed for the Moon heist, Gru is foiled by Vector, who steals the device, and hides it in his impenetrable fortress. The only way in? Through Vectors stomach, courtesy of some girl scout cookies delivered by the three most adorable orphans, this side of Annie.
Gru concocts a plan to adopt the children, for the sole purpose of infiltrating Vectors hide-out, have them deliver some specially designed robo-cookies, which will enable him to steal back the means to his inevitable Moon shrinking ends. Of course, as had to be expected, things go hilariously, and predictably wrong as the three adopted children work their way into Gru’s villainous heart. The girls get Gru to take them to the carnival, to their dance recital, and so on, slowly whittling away at years of evil deeds.
As far as the overall Moon heist goes, things go surprising according to plan for the most part, as the moon is unbelievably shrunk to the size of a ball, and momentarily returned to the Earth. We are then treated to a climactic show-down between the two villains, and the three adorable orphaned girls, are not so orphaned at the end.
It is certainly not a rehashed plot line, despite the cliched moments of a hard-hearted grump, slowly worked over by the prospect of becoming the father that he so lacked, growing up with a consistently negative mother, voiced by Julie Andrews.
I think what struck me as being so unique about this film, was it’s irreverence, the almost return to a Looney Tunes -type world where people can survive the most insane detonations, dust themselves off, and start up again. Where, in a row of suburban cookie cutter houses, Gru’s black and clearly villainous house does not draw any attention to itself. Or even his car for that matter. A retro tank of a car, something that would prove itself highly impractical in the real world, or even a Pixar movie, fits perfectly well in this world they’ve created. I even warmed up to the “minions.” These small, yellow, jawa-like figures that have been a large part of the marketing campaign over the past several months, seemed absolutely trite and obnoxious to me from the outside. “Why are they yellow?” “Are they human?” These were the questions I had going into the movie, which quickly disappeared as I realized that these questions simply did not matter. The minions serve their purpose hilariously, and manage to poke fun at themselves, as well as the serious tone of other animated films. And the kids loved them. Every time one would accidentally blow up, or shrink, or drink some concoction that lifted them into the stratosphere, the kids roared with laughter.
Another incredible element of the film that was highly skeptical about going into the film, was the voice cast. To praise Pixar once more in this review of a non-Pixar film, is their choices in casting voices for their characters. They consistently choose quality voice / character actors to bring their toys, monsters, or animals to life. They try their best to steer away from stunt casting, which is something that the Dreamworks and Fox animated films have done time and time again, to obnoxious effect. I honestly thought that was what I was in store for, seeing Steve Carell’s name plastered all over the marketing for this movie. As the opening credits rolled, and it was revealed that Jason Segel and Russell Brand would also be voicing characters in Despicable Me, I could feel my brain quickly shielding itself, from what could have been an hour and half of dick and fart jokes. I’ll also have to admit, that as soon as Carell’s Gru starts talking, I pictured Michael Scott from the Office, doing a bad imitation of a foreigner. This quickly dissipated, as Carell’s voice acting was consistent throughout the film. I don’t think it was a believable accent as far as one that might exist in our world, but in the world of the film, it worked. However good Carell’s voice acting was, Russell Brand stole the show, with his character, Dr. Nefario. Having just seen Brand star as himself once again in Get Him To The Greek, I was expecting another rock and roll character to pop up somewhere in this movie, and make me groan at the further lack of proper utilization of Brand’s comedic timing and sensibilities. There is none of that in this movie. Brand manages to deliver a crackly, crotchety, senile mad scientist, who could easily be admitted to the Academy of Inventors, in Futurama. I could not believe that I was watching the same character, who only weeks earlier, was singing about the Clap, and African babies. Brand deserves an award of some kind, for his work in this film. Jason Segel’s Vector is also a pleasant change-up from his usual shtick. Segel manages to change his voice enough to where you know it’s him, but you can see that he’s working for this role.
I can’t finish this review without highlighting another piece of the story that I was pleasantly surprised with, namely the three orphaned girls. They are clearly in the Powerpuff Girl molds of having three distinct, but completely interlocked personalities. The leader, the tough kid, and the kid who loves fluffy unicorns. They never go too far with out just how adorable these kids are, as they have been toughened up by their years at the orphanage, under the despotic rule of Miss Hattie, voiced by Kristin Wiig (a personal favorite of mine from the recent Saturday Night Live cast). I felt flashes of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, as the marketing slowly leaked the plot points, but again, the movie surprised me with how well it managed to subvert some expectations.
Overall, Despicable Me, is a surprising amount of fun, in a summer of complete schlock. It manages to revitalize the joy I one had in watching characters wield ridiculous weapons, dodge absurd missile barrages, while not featuring obnoxious dialog. Throughout this review I’ve wanted to compare some of the moments of physical comedy to the work of Jacques Tati, as I’m sure the directors, Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud must have watched his works in their development of this project. Despicable Me was animated through Illumination Entertainment, and distributed by Universal Pictures, and I honestly hope this movie does well, so that we can see more films from this pairing, as they have released a solid comedy, animated or not.