Film Review: Despicable Me

Steve Carell is convincingly Gru-some as the world’s most vulnerable super-villain, and his lovable yellow minions are incorrigible scene-stealers.

Despicable Me, with its trio of orphaned adolescent sisters determined to find a home, its pair of rival villains armed with enough gizmos and gadgets to blow up an Xbox, and its horde of squeezable minions more adorable than a paddock of puppies, pretty much covers the bases. Girls, boys, sentimental moms and wise-cracking dads (or vice versa) will be entertained by one aspect or another of this cleverly formulaic cartoon that is, by turns, caustic and charming, gross and poignant, silly and sophisticated.

Chris Meledandri, overseeing this first production from Universal Pictures’ Illumination Entertainment, even thought out the international angle. The setting is American (screenplay by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, the writing team who brought us Horton Hears a Who!), but the story originated with Spanish animator Sergio Pablos, while the art direction is European (CGI by French animation house Mac Guff, direction by Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin). The result might be described as Alfred E. Neuman meets Asterix, an odd couple who play well together.

Gru (Steve Carell), with his black-and-grey soccer scarf and dubious Eastern European accent, certainly has continental flair, even if he lives in an Addams-style house in suburbia. An ambitious criminal whose dastardly deeds have fallen short of notoriety, he is miffed that his younger rival, a nerdy fop who calls himself Vector (Jason Segel), has heisted the Great Pyramid, while he has managed to swipe only the Statue of Liberty—the miniature one in Las Vegas. But Gru has a plan. If he can capture the Shrink Ray (under development by the Chinese) and obtain a small-business loan from the Bank of Evil to build a spaceship, he is confident he can swipe the Moon, thus securing his place in the Annals of Crime.

Everyone knows about best-laid plans: Vector pirates the pilfered Shrink Ray, forcing our persistent antihero to adopt three girls selling cookies door-to-door in order to use them to infiltrate Vector’s impenetrable Wright-like fortress. Little does Gru suspect that Margo, Edith and Agnes (Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier and Elsie Fisher) are more than a match for his evil genius. Gru steals the Moon, but they steal his heart.

Writers Paul and Daurio are nothing if not economical. Despicable Me wastes little time on exposition—just enough to establish character—allowing ample opportunity for leisurely set-pieces, including two interviews with a bloviating bank president (Will Arnett) that adults will appreciate, as well as a reading from a storybook entitled “Sleepy Kittens” that Gru pronounces (in his Cyrillic accent) “garbage.” Much of the humor, and animation, is basic stuff involving Vector’s attempts to perfect weapons employing piranhas, squids and sharks, but there are amusing subplots featuring Gru’s abominable mother (voiced by Julia Andrews, of all people) and the hideous Ms. Hattie (Kristen Wiig), who runs the foster home where Margo, Edith and Agnes are employed, er, cared for. Gru’s massive subterranean laboratories, secreted beneath his house, are overseen by his superannuated sidekick, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), who, hard of hearing, constantly mistakes his boss’ requisitions for armaments—a dart gun becomes…well, there’s plenty of old-fashioned toilet humor that never gets as old as our antiheroes.

Dr. Nefario, presumably, is responsible for Gru’s Minions, Despicable Me’s contribution to the Annals of Comic Creation. The shape, color and, one imagines, texture of foam ear-plugs bedecked in bib overalls and safety goggles, our gibbering worker beans upstage Carell in just about every scene they appear together. Think of The Three Stooges multiplied by a thousand, bonking one another over the head with lug wrenches and scanning their little yellow butts on the office photocopier. Minions crack themselves up, literally, although their intended purpose is to execute Gru’s arch schemes. Part of the joke is that their evil master knows all their names, although they all look alike, kinda; how many environmentally conscious, affirmative-acting multimillionaire CEOs can boast the same about their minions?

Thus is Gru, slowly but inexorably, revealed to be a caring soul suffering from the aftershocks of his own traumatized childhood, a tried-and-true formula for creating lovable villains in the modern fairy tale. And once again, the theme of a summer kids’ movie (Toy Story 3 included) is fear of abandonment and the search for home, the very definition of childhood in the Western world. If the stalwart and persistent Margo, Edith and Agnes are any example, it takes a tough child to raise a tender parent.