MOVIE REVIEW: Despicable Me



It's not just because of this summer's Toy Story 3 (OK, maybe a little bit), but I am noticing that Pixar has begun to spoil me.  Their quality movies and products have made me a slight snob when it comes to animated and computer-animated family films as a genre.  In my mind, and under my critical eye, Pixar is the best in the business at animation and, more importantly, storytelling.  Once you've had the best, it's hard to go back.  This is case I had with Despicable Me,  from the creators of Ice Age and Horton Hears a Who and the first foray into computer-animation for Universal Pictures.

As I mentioned, what Pixar and their parent company Disney do better than 20th Century Fox (the Ice Age series) and Dreamworks (the Shrek series) is storytelling.  Not only have five Pixar films won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature since they started handing out the award, but more impressively, a whopping five of their films (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up) have been so well written that they were nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award in their respective years, right up there with live-action award-winning films like The Usual Suspects, Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Juno, Milk, and The Hurt Locker.  

Such solid and original storytelling and writing is what sets Pixar apart from its chief competitors over at Dreamworks and Fox.  While there are a few rival exceptions like Kung Fu Panda, Horton Hears a Who, and How to Train Your Dragon, I probably shouldn't try to unfairly compare other animated films to the Pixar resume, but I can't help it.  They've set the standard.

It's in the all-important element of storytelling that Despicable Me fails to succeed.  You kind of need a story that has a point to keep my attention.  I'm sure the kids will love it, but this movie doesn't have a story or a point.  The movie follows a scarf-clad Euro-trash supervillain, Gru (voiced in a terrible Eastern European accent by Steve Carell), who plots to be the world's greatest villain.  In a secret lab underneath his home, he works with Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand of Get Him to the Greek) and hundreds of little yellow pill-shaped one-or-two-eyed "minions" who are a cross between the claw aliens from Toy Story and hyper-mischievous versions of Jawas from Star Wars. 

Gru becomes pitted in a duel with another supervillain, Vector (Forgetting Sarah Marshall's Jason Segal).  The tracksuit and Wii-playing geek one-upped Gru by stealing the Great Pyramid.  Now, Vector wants to duplicate Gru's plan to shrink and steal the Moon.  When Gru hilariously can't seem to break into Vector's fortress to steal an all-important shrink ray for the big job, he quickly adopts three young cookie-selling girls, Margo, Edith, and Agnes, from the local orphanage to use as pawns to get inside Vector's lair.  Soon, Gru realizes that he actually has to take care of these girls despite his plotting and grows attached to them. 

Does that all sound random and stupid?  It does because it is.  It sounds like a plot I would find on a Balderdash game card of bad, random, yet actual movie plots.  Don't get me wrong. Despicable Me sure tries to work and the effort is visible. 

The movie has its funny gags and clever elements here and there.  The three girls, especially the youngest one ("It's so fluffy!!!!") that they keep showing in every commercial, are a riot when they show up.  Young kids will love the antics of all the minions.  Other than needing subtitles to follow Carell, the creators behind the Ice Age series gathered a great voice cast of the likes of Segal, Brand, SNL's Kristin Wiig, Will Arnett, Danny McBride, and Julie Andrews that are all keenly disguised in their roles and don't stand out as themselves underneath the animation.  The collaboration of hip-hop producer Pharrell Williams (one half of The Neptunes) and mega-composer Hans Zimmer created a unique, sly, and devious score.  Kudos also go to Universal Pictures in this, their first attempt with big-budget animation to compete with the big boys at Pixar, Fox, and Dreamworks.

However, in the end, the shiny parts, hit-or-miss gags, and the trio of adorable girls can't save a pointless story.  Despicable Me can't hold a proverbial candle to Toy Story 3 or the other recent Pixar movies that have raised the bar for computer-animation and original imaginative stories.  I had a hard time keeping my eyes open with this one and you might too, even if you do bring the kids.  Their shouts of joy may keep you awake, but the movie won't keep your attention.  Something tells me, down the road, that this will be one of likely many movies parents will someday learn to viscerally hate after their kids request to watch it for the 64th time in a row on DVD.

LESSON #1: EVEN SUPERVILLAINS HAVE HEARTS-- Sure, their hearts might be devoted to their nefarious plots and evil deeds more often than not, but deep down they're just like you and me.  They have a conscience and soul.  Like in most movies, villains are likely misunderstood.  They're just trying to validate themselves, just in the opposite way from good.  They have mothers too and do care about something.

LESSON #2: LOYAL FOLLOWERS COME IN HANDY-- Why do all the work yourself?  Go ahead and delegate some duties to your gullible mob of followers.  What?!  You don't have a basement full of little mutated Corn Pop minions doing your every bidding and chore?  I sure do; (Hint: Parents, they're your kids) you better go get yours!

LESSON #3: IT'S ONE THING TO PROVIDE FOR A CHILD, BUT IT'S ANOTHER THING TO RAISE ONE-- Being attentive to kids or good with kids is one thing, but truly being there, through the thick and thin, to raise them to adulthood is another thing entirely.  I, like Gru sometimes, am guilty of this is real life.  As a teacher, I'm great with little kids and an entertainer, but it's another thing to have one or more of your own children and not someone else's.  Parenting or raising a child is not just about feeding or providing for them, but also about all of the little responsibilities in between.  It's no secret that Gru learns this lesson in a big way.

LESSON #4: DUELS AND RIVALRIES ARE OBSESSIONS WITH ONLY ONE WINNER-- Duels and contests of one-up-manship normally get out of hand and turn into an obsession.  Instead of being narrowed minded to that obsession, conceding probably could have been an easier route.  Just ask Alexander Hamilton, the losers of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Hamlet, the headless victims of The Highlander, or any doomed Jedi with a lightsaber in his hand.  Walk away and swallow your pride.  Gru, go steal something else.  Live to fight another day.