Monday, July 19, 2010

Movie Review: DESPICABLE ME (Universal, 2010)

You can thank a clever trailer or two for convincing Nicky and me to give this surprisingly funny and enjoyable animated entry a try... though the one we saw last year pretty much shot the entire opening sequence of the movie straight to hell for us. In truth, had I also watched the Darkwing Duck two-part pilot episode "Darkly Dawns the Duck" before screening this film, it would have been the perfect warm-up exercise to acquaint myself with the emotional ups-and-downs that would be on display. The kicker, of course, is that our protagonist is a glory-hungry villain, rather than a glory-hungry hero...

The beak-nosed, hunch-shouldered Gru (Steve Carell, essaying a funny, and at times creepy, Eastern European accent) has all the accouterments of a master criminal -- loyal science-geek helper (Russell Brand), high-tech equipment out the wazoo, an army of minions (one- and two-eyed creatures who speak in gibberish and resemble animated Twinkies cakes stood on end) -- but as a master criminal, he's, well, more like the holder of an associate's degree. The "evil bank" that funds him is unhappy over the meager returns on its repeated investments, and, to make matters worse, Vector (Jason Segel), a younger and (at least in Vector's own eyes, though there's precious little supporting evidence) "hipper" new rival, has just swiped the one piece of equipment Gru craves in order to accomplish a lifelong goal: shrinking and stealing the Moon. To get the tech back, Gru cynically adopts a trio of orphans (Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Geier, Elsie Fisher) and intends to raid Vector's fortress while the kids are busy selling cookies to the sweet-toothed geek. Little does Gru realize what an impact the presence of these girls will have on his life -- and ensuing efforts to complete his "mission", in spite of all obstacles...

Emotionally, Despicable Me doesn't come close to plumbing the depths reached by Toy Story 3, largely because all of the characterizations save Gru's are basically stereotypes and many of the major set-pieces have antecedents in other movies. An early gag in which Gru "laughs off" the apparent death of one of the orphans because he "can manage with two" is less amusing than it appears at first glance; the trio of "cynical and realistic older girl," "slightly weird middle girl," and "annoyingly cute and enthusiastic young girl" could very easily have been melded into a single character (as, in fact, Darkwing Duck did with Gosalyn). There's no denying, however, that writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul have an effective way of plucking one's heartstrings. Likewise, the set-up of the high-altitude climax will be quite familiar to those who've watched Up, but Daurio and Paul know how to slip in a clever gag to brighten things up (such as the various ones arising from the unexpected... flaw in the glorious Shrink Ray). Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the film is the ability to make a villain an appealing protagonist without veering off into snarkiness or amorality. For a film aimed mostly at kids, that's pretty remarkable.

Universal would be crazy to attempt to do a sequel to this movie, but, by all accounts, they're considering one even as I write. Well, even Dr. Seuss buckled and allowed DePatie-Freleng to make Halloween is Grinch Night, so a follow-up would fail in rather distinguished company.

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