Universal // 2010 // 95 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 23rd, 2010
Agnes (singing): "Unicorns, I love them. Unicorns, I love them. Uni uni unicorns, I love them. Uni unicorns, I could pet one if they were really real. And they are! So I bought one so I could pet it. Now it loves me, now I love it. La lala la la..."
Gru (Steve Carell, The Office) is a villain. Maliciously popping children's balloons and using his freeze-ray on long lines of customers at the coffee shop are parts of his daily routine. His big accomplishments of recent times including stealing the Times Square Jumbotron, stealing the Statue of Liberty (the one in Las Vegas) and stealing the Eiffel Tower (also the one in Las Vegas). However, Gru's feats are put to shame when an up-and-coming villain named Vector (Jason Segal, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) pulls off the remarkable feat of stealing an Egyptian pyramid. The media declares that this feat makes all other villains look pathetic; a statement which irks Gru to no end.
Refusing to be bested by the smarmy Vector, Gru plots to pull off the biggest crime of his career: he's going to steal the moon. In order to pull off this elaborate scheme, Gru is going to need a few important ingredients -- a heavily-guarded shrink-ray, some cookie robots and a few young children. For that last item, Gru visits a local orphanage and adopts three young girls named Margo (Miranda Cosgrove, iCarly), Edith (Dana Gaeir) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher, Medium). Gru's initial plan is simply to use the children in his evil scheme and then return them to the orphanage, but the kids eventually begin to tug on his heartstrings. Soon, the irritable Gru finds himself torn between his growing parental instincts and his villainous desires.
Despicable Me is Universal's first animated film, which makes the risks it takes all the more remarkable. Rather than attempting to follow the proven formulas of Pixar or Dreamworks, the recently-formed Illumination Entertainment takes its own distinctive path to mostly satisfying effect.
The film is the first of two animated movies from 2010 to feature a supervillain as a protagonist. This is something of a risky move, but at least the second of these films (Dreamworks' Megamind) protected itself by giving the villain the reliably appealing personality of Will Ferrell. Gru is voiced by the similarly popular Steve Carell, but the character is one of the most distinctively odd creations of recent years. In physical appearance, Gru looks like a cross between The Penguin from Batman Returns and Finis Everglott from Corpse Bride. He is a grumpy-looking figure with a round head and long pointy nose; plus a massive midsection dumped on top of a pair of thin, stick-figure legs. Carell's vocal characterization is similarly nutty, offering a hilariously terrible Russian accent with occasionally dollops of vaguely German rage thrown in for good measure. The writers frequently wring comic gold out of Gru's awkward metaphors: "It's like my heart is a tooth, and it's got a cavity than can only be filled with children." The filmmakers undoubtedly took a big chance by making this guy their central character, but the risk paid off big-time.
Despicable Me also distinguishes itself by being willing to tackle a slightly more subversive brand of humor than the average animated film. Of course things turn sweet and gooey by the film's conclusion, but the script has loads of fun playing up Gru's prickly side on the journey there. "We can't go to sleep without a bedtime story!" one of the little girls pleads. "Well, it will be very long night for you, then," Gru smirks. "Also, I think there is monster in your closet." Plenty of films employ child endangerment as an easy way of amplifying drama (see Tony Scott's Unstoppable), but Despicable Me uses the same technique for giggles. In one scene, a child unsuspectingly walks into one of Gru's death traps (the objects in his home present a series of colorful deaths just waiting to happen). The door slams shut and red liquid oozes out from underneath it. "My juice box got popped!" the child complains from inside.
The voice work is another area in which the film takes an unexpected approach. Yes, it does take the traditional approach of filling every little voice role with a recognizable name (for instance, a character with about three lines is voiced by Danny McBride), but the odd thing is that actually the film actually requires all of the actors to create distinctive characters. So, the rakish Russell Brand (Get Him to the Greek) voices a frumpy old scientist, Julie Andrews (The Sound of Music) employs another silly accent as Gru's mother, Kristen Wiig (Saturday Night Live) uses a passive-aggressive southern accent in her turn as the woman who runs the orphanage and so on. Aside from Gru, my favorite vocal performances come from Elsie Fisher as the precocious Agnes. "Awww, my caterpillar didn't turn into a butterfly!" she sighs while examining a stale Cheeto.
Best of all, Despicable Me is the all-too-rare animated film that feels like a cartoon. No, the action scenes aren't as realistic or intense as the ones presented in films like How to Train Your Dragon or The Incredibles, but they're refreshingly loopy. This is the sort of movie in which a character can have a giant bomb dropped on their head and emerge from the attack with nothing but some tattered clothes and a headache. This Looney Toon logic permits the filmmakers to go nuts with amusingly violent bits of slapstick, as it's established early on that nobody's really going to get hurt. As such, when one of the kids is chasing Gru around the house with a pistol, the results are hilarious rather than cringe-inducing.
The film looks splendid in hi-def, offering a 1080p/1.85:1 transfer that dazzles without fail for the duration of the film's running time. As with the best new animated transfers, Despicable Me is essentially flawless. The bright colors nearly pop off the screen, the busy action scenes offer sparkling detail and depth is superb. While the animation itself isn't as richly nuanced as something like Wall-E, what's here looks as good as it possibly can. The audio is equally superb throughout, as this exceptionally busy track offers one aurally thrilling sequence after another. The music (a creative, fresh blend of ideas by Pharrell Williams, Hans Zimmer and Heitor Pereira) comes through with strength and balances nicely with the sound design. Only a sequence at the amusement park seems just a bit overloaded and muddled at times.
The supplemental package is reasonably generous, but geared as much at kids as older viewers. This is particularly evident in the "Gru-Control" feature, a picture-in-picture track hosted by the minions (little yellow creatures which aid Gru in his quest to commit horrible crimes) that becomes very irritating very quickly. Slightly better is a commentary with co-directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin, who do a solid job of detailing the film's production. However, the track is occasionally interrupted by guest appearances from the minions. Next up are three mildly amusing animated shorts (12 minutes) starring the minions; they aren't on the level of the film but they're worth a look. However, at this point I'm sure most will be minioned out.
Next, we have a batch of sturdy EPK-style featurettes: "The Voices of Despicable Me" (17 minutes), "The World of Despicable Me" (15 minutes), "A Global Effort" (3 minutes) and "Despicable Beats" (3 minutes). You also get some of "Miss Hattie's Top Secret Cookie Recipes," a collection of bland interactive games in "Super Silly Fun Land" and another game called "Gru's Rocket Builder." Finally, you get some Despicable Me game trailers, a DVD copy, a digital copy, Pocket Blu, BD-Live and My Scenes.
I have but a few minor quibbles with this fun flick. First, the emotional arc is just a bit on-the-nose -- the film seems to foreshadow Gru's transformation a little too early, as his soft side appears long before he begins to make any sort of genuine change. Secondly, there's an extended post-credits sequence featuring the minions that was probably a lot of fun in 3-D but which simply seems confusing in 2-D (the minions are attempting to touch the audience from the screen). Finally, I'm a little concerned by the news that a sequel is in the works -- now that Gru is no longer an irritable baddie, I sincerely doubt that he'll be nearly as enjoyable a protagonist. But, that's a bridge to cross later on.
While Despicable Me is just a shade too conventional to rank as a truly great animated film, it sure is a whole lot of fun. It's the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs of 2010; a cheerfully entertaining romp from left field which has wit and warmth to burn. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Short Films
* Interactive Games
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy
* Pocket Blu
* My Scenes