Note to Pixar: Start seriously sizing up your competition. Toy Story 3 proved a monster at the box office and immediately became a favorite amongst critics for certain, but 2010 clearly shows that even when you’ve been at the top of your industry for almost two decades it’s never a good idea to rest on your laurels. Case in point: March’s delightful fantasy adventure, How to Train Your Dragon— hailing from Dreamworks– and now, July’s James Bond/Spy vs. Spy send-up, Despicable Me. The other guys are quickly– very quickly– catching up to you, Pixar. What are you going to do about it?
Despicable Me comes to us courtesy of Illumination Entertainment, an animation studio (and subsidiary of Universal studios) founded two years ago by the ex-President of Fox Animation. While the film does not reach the same heights as the best of Pixar’s films, it comes incredibly close for a first effort. The ingredients here for the most part are the same as those used by the aforementioned studio in their more successful endeavors; the only difference is that Despicable Me‘s directors, Coffin and Renaud, don’t quite know how to treat them the same way, and thus the result is somewhat diluted– but this makes the movie no less worth your time and attention.
The film follows Gru (Steve Carrell), the eponymous dastardly ne’er-do-well. In Gru’s world, “super villain” appears to be a legitimate profession– at least, legitimate enough that those who follow the career path can get funding for their misdeeds by evil banks. The very concept of such a world is completely wacky in the most delightful ways possible, and it’s a shame for the film and for us that the story isn’t especially interested in examining the world in greater detail. But Despicable Me has other designs in mind; it turns out that Gru, a dinosaur of sorts in his field, is far from the top of the super villain totem pole. A younger upstart named Vector (Jason Segel) has taken the crown title of “best super villain on the planet”, and Gru obsessively attempts to carry out a master plan that will firmly establish him as the world’s true master of crime and villainy.
To that end, Gru adopts a trio of adorable young girl scouts as a diversion to aid in breaking into Vector’s lair. The direction the movie takes at this point becomes clear very quickly: Gru, whom we learn craves his elderly mother’s approval (and apparently grew up without a father figure in his life), starts to genuinely view the three girls as his daughters and quickly grows fond of them to the detriment of his plans to steal the moon. Felonies and other various acts of malfeasance can wait: He’s got a fluffy unicorn toy to win for the youngest child.
Steve Carrell is absolutely wonderful here. Having been shoe-horned into playing total jerks, complete buffoons, and combinations of both (see: Michael Scott, The Office), it’s refreshing to see him give life to a character who isn’t completely incompetent– just outclassed and out-mastered by an incredibly skilled opponent. It’s the supporting characters who get to play the role of “nitwit” this time around, notably Russell Brand as Dr. Nefarious, Gru’s own iteration of “Q”, who frequently misunderstands Gru’s requests to amusing and occasionally childishly crude results. Carrell gives Gru a voice that recalls Boris Badenov to a character who shares a resemblance to Peter Lorre and Oswald Cobblepot; without advanced knowledge one might even have a hard time discerning that it is indeed Carrell in the recording booth, not just for the veiled effect the voice provides but also for how easily the actor disappears into his role. He’s having a grand time behind the mic, and his enthusiasm is palatable. Gru is the kind of guy who delights in the misery of a random child on the street but also flips a mean pancake (crafted into varying shapes and images) and loves amusement parks. In a way this character feels pretty perfect for Carrell.
Nestled within the villain-on-villain interplay lies the kind of tender, honest, and sweet emotional core that puts animated films of this caliber in a different class from the rest– it’s a key ingredient that makes Pixar’s films so widely praised and financially successful. Despicable Me has enthralling antics and mayhem to keep audiences engaged but the film’s heart is what makes everything stick with us throughout and afterward. As much as the picture is about two top-tier bad guys duking it out for the title of “best super criminal”, it’s also about an adult who hasn’t reconciled with his unhappy childhood spent living with an impossible to please mother and an absentee father. Am I turning a fun animated romp into a sob story about the lead’s mommy and daddy issues? I certainly don’t think so; these elements exist almost at the forefront of Gru’s development as a character and make his gradual change in disposition towards the girls understandable.
Arguably, all of the stuff of the heart is more essential to Despicable Me‘s success than the film’s action and humor, though the film is more than adept at thrilling and entertaining. Some of the comedy beats pretty obviously are more geared towards making kids laugh– Nefarious mixes up Gru’s order for a “dart” gun and, well, you’ll know it when you see it– but there’s plenty in here for self-respecting adults to have a laugh over, particularly the antics of Gru’s “minions”, an army of what look like sentient plantains that exist to support their master’s plans and act as test subjects for Nefarious’ inventions– often at their own peril.
But in the end any such arguments over what attributes are most essential to the movie’s success are kind of pointless. Despicable Me blends a fine balance of each of its elements together to create a mostly seamless result, as is the case with the best of modern animated features. Maybe what makes Despicable Me special above all else is that it’s the second piece of CGI animation released this year to prove itself a respectable adversary to the reigning champs of the craft. Toy Story 3 being released in the same year as How to Train Your Dragon and Despicable Me can only be a good thing– namely an increase in diversity of quality CGI animation.