Despicable Me, 2010.
Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud.
Featuring the voice talents of Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove and Julie Andrews.
A supervillain adopts three orphaned girls so they can steal a shrink ray from his enemy’s lair.
Gru (Steve Carell) wants the moon, his reason being that once he has it, the world will give him whatever he wants for its safe return. But what, exactly, does Gru want?
Gru is a supervillain with his own army of short, yellow minions, a secret, underground base and an elderly, evil scientist, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand). What he does not have, however, is respect – not from the head of the Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers), nor from his uninterested mother. Gru doesn’t really want the moon, or all the riches it could provide. He wants that respect. He wants to be the greatest supervillain in the world.
Despicable Me’s world is an intriguing one, inhabited only by normal people and evil geniuses, with not a single superhero of which to speak. Such a lack of regulation involving frequent plot-foiling and ass-whoopery has created a climate where these supervillains can behave as they wish: crushing cars to find a parking space, popping a child’s balloons, casting a café’s queue in ice with a freeze ray to hop to the front. Incidentally, product placement is queasily rife in this film. That it is aimed at those poor, impressionable children makes the experience all the more nauseous.
All these supervillains are constantly trying to outdo one another, and Gru’s grand idea is the theft of the moon – but he needs a shrink ray to do so. The only one in existence is in the possession of Vector (Jason Segal), a spoilt twit (his father is head of the Bank of Evil) with a predisposition towards aquatic-life-themed weaponry. Upon his and Gru’s first meeting, Vector proudly displays his Piranha Blaster, which fires piranhas. Later, he unveils his new creation: the Squid Gun, which fires squid.
Only one thing can penetrate the many defences of Vector’s head quarters – young girls selling cookies. Specifically coconut ones. No, there isn’t anything pervy about this. Well, there might be in the subtext (immature, sociopathic man-child lures 12 year old girls in uniform into his lair), but the film doesn’t play his motivation that way. He simply loves their cookies (again, not a euphemism). So Gru adopts three girls from the local orphanage to smuggle a box of cookie-shaped robots into Vector’s mighty fortress. The obvious solution.
Before this point, the film intercuts between Gru and the three girls. Gru receives far more screen time, and they all encounter each other near the film’s beginning as the girls attempt to sell him some cookies – but that is all. This is the film’s structural and narrative flaw.
Gru is initially an unsympathetic character, and remains that way for the first two-thirds of the film (SPOILER: he and the girls foster a loving relationship by the end). He has a handful of tender moments to break up his inherent evilness – he is a supervillain, after all – when the film flashes back to his youth and his relationship with his mother. These, however, are few and far between.
If Steve Carell’s name wasn’t so large in the opening credits, you’d have no idea Gru’s was his voice. He grimaces out a poor Eastern-European accent that hinders much of Carell’s naturally comedic delivery. Those initial credits promise much – Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig, Jemaine Clement, Jack McBrayer, Danny McBride – but none of them sound as they do in real life. In an animated film, what is the point of having such a depth of audibly recognisable talent if they are unidentifiable? Why not cast proper voice actors? The only visible manifestation of Carell in Gru is his large nose (“Like when you go to the beach and someone yells ‘Shark! Shark!’ and then they realise that it’s Steve Carell doing the backstroke?”).
Rather, as Gru is so difficult to relate to, why not open on the three orphan girls? They are three cute, defined characters, particularly the unicorn-obsessed, youngest one, Agnes (“IT’S SO FLUFFY!”), that could easily carry the film’s opening 20 minutes. Their stories can be established – why they are in the orphanage in the first place, why the three have stuck together, why they desire adoption so very much. They’re sympathetic - they’re empathetic – unlike Gru.
Additionally, it provides a natural framework in which the three girls, who are in the dark about Gru’s supervillainary – as are we – can ask questions about his profession and backstory. Plot details and character history could be teased out organically, rather than through exposition or montage.
These are fundamental flaws, but grudgingly forgivable ones. Although the film failed in this respect, it at least tried something different - an unsympathetic, evil protagonist. Such daring is not often a trait of children’s films outside studios Pixar and Aardman.
However, one cannot forgive Despicable Me for missed opportunity. The one foot-in-the-door that the viewer is provided for a way into Gru’s psychology, so we can understand him better, is his relationship with his mother. This is told in flashbacks, when she uninterestedly sighs at her child’s increasingly impressive rocket models, and in the present day during a phone call, where she taunts him for not being the mastermind behind a recent pyramid theft. She’s the whole reason Gru is why he is. In another life, with another mother, he’d be an astronaut.
Yet the film treats her as nothing more than a cheap laugh. She only appears in the two aforementioned, very brief flashbacks and phone call scene, another appearance right at the very end of the film, and in one tiny segment of a montage during the middle.
Montages, he said through gritted teeth and a furrowed brow, there must be at least three montages in this film. It’s a short cut, an easy way of conveying character and relationship development, which should be permissible only in Rocky. They fool you into thinking you’re experiencing emotion, when really it’s just a surface level effect of music and editing. There are too many in Despicable Me. But fair enough.
What’s not fair enough is having Gru’s mother appear for no longer than ten seconds, for little more than an easy joke, during one of them. Gru and the children’s relationship is blossoming. They’ve been to theme parks and dance practices, and suddenly the moon isn’t looking quite so important – but then Gru’s mother appears. This should be a pivotal moment, where she embarrasses him and reawakens his insecurities, reminding him why he adopted the kids in the first place – to become the greatest supervillain in the world.
But she doesn’t. She gets out a photo album and shows the children a picture of Gru as a baby, his bare bottom completing the cliché. Gru places his hand on his forehead and groans. The children chuckle. They move onto the next insignificant part of the montage. Everything’s fine. Character development is ignored.
It’s not important anyway. Look at the Wii that Vector is playing on. Look how cute all these yellow minions are. Focus on them instead, and don’t forget to pester your parents about buying all our merchandise once you’ve left the cinema. That’s how we’ll get a sequel – through spin-off toys rather than characters you wish to revisit.
Gru isn’t the only supervillain at work here.
365 Days, 100 Films