Despicable Me (review)

Totally Gru-vy

I’m still considering whether I’m ready to blaspheme… No, wait: I’m coming to a decision… Yes, I shall blaspheme:

Despicable Me is better than Toy Story 3.

There. I said it.

Only a little bit better, but still. What pushes Despicable Me over the top? Where Toy Story 3, lovely and moving as it is, covers much the same ground as it has before in bringing its larger story full circle, Despicable Me is totally fresh and wildly original. In a summer that’s been nothing but, it seems, sequels and remakes and reboots and transfers from TV and comic books and novels, it feels like an act of outright anarchy for a film to give us something we’re totally unfamiliar with: characters we’ve never met before, situations we’ve not previously encountered, and a story we don’t already know the ending of before we even walk into the theater.

Maybe that makes Me feel fresher and wilder than it would have felt in another year. Because this is indeed a story that is a logical progression of where mainstream popcorn pop culture has been going. It was inevitable that, after the barrage of superhero movies we’ve been inundated with over the past decade, that the next obvious step is a movie in which a supervillain is the hero. (It’s so obvious a next step that we’ll get another one in Megamind, coming this November.) And because Hollywood doesn’t have the nerve to make an ultradark horror movie about a sympathetic psychopath (never mind that to some, Heath Ledger’s deeply disturbing Joker from The Dark Knight has become something of an icon), that supervillain-as-hero movie would have to be a comedy. And probably an animated one, just to keep the evil decidedly in the realm of the cartoonish.

And here is it. Gru (the deliciously unrecognizable voice of Steve Carell: Date Night, Get Smart) is the despicable he, “the greatest criminal mind of the century” (or so he says, and he’s probably right), a dour soul whose misanthropy assumes proportions as hilarious as, well, as he himself, with his Uncle Fester face half buried in a stripey scarf, and his barrel-shaped body and stick legs perpetually clad in black — he’s like an aging hipster gone bad. Oh, the misanthropy? Let’s just say you’ll want to avoid him before he’s had his morning coffee. Now, he’s about to embark upon his most dastardly scheme ever: He is going to steal the moon. Bwahahaha! The TV ads for the film tell us that Gru has “inherited” three small orphan girls and implies that an overload of cuteness and sudden parental duty causes a disruption to this mad plan. But in fact, Gru is much more wicked. He doesn’t coincidentally “inherit” the girls: it’s part of his insane moon-stealing plot to adopt the orphans and deploy them as a vital component of his strategy.

Of course the girls — the eldest, streetwise Margo (the voice of Miranda Cosgrove: School of Rock), bloodthirsty Edith (the voice of Dana Gaier), and tiny, sweet Agnes (the voice of Elsie Fisher) — do transform Gru from a misanthropic grump into… something else. Not that any melting of his cold, hard heart has the slightest impact on his plan to steal the moon, mind. But Despicable Me is saved, in part, from tedious sentimentality because Gru’s downfall — or upfall, perhaps? — is entirely his own doing. He thought he could harness the cuteness for evil, but the power of cute of too strong for even the likes of Gru to withstand. He looked into the cuteness, and the cuteness looked back.

But the girls — oh, these girls! — are adorable, yes, but they also burst with genuine little-girlness, as cranky, aggressive, demanding, and full of their own unique personalities as any little female monster ever is… which is not a quality that most movies ever want to contend with. They keep the mad-science insanity that is Gru and his life silly and sweet and grounded and satisfyingly poignant. (Screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, working from a story by first-timer Sergio Pablos, jointly wrote both Bubble Boy and Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!, which would not have sounded like anything to recommend them, but they got it all right here in ways that their previous scripts did not.)

And then there’s Gru’s world, a spectacularly funny and visually inventive realm that is entirely plausible, for all its beautifully stylized animation, and simultaneously unexpected in how it creates a place both fantastical, ticklishly bizarre and absurd. Within Gru’s Addams-esque house — incongruously set on a sunny suburban block — is his underground lair, where his minions work. His minions are many, and they are actually called Minions, and they worship Gru with all the fervor their tiny yellow blobbish bodies can muster, and with all the awe their unintelligible yet oddly perfectly understandable language can evoke. This awe is put to excellent use in Gru’s ongoing battle with young, hungry up-and-comer Vector (the voice of Jason Segel: I Love You, Man, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), who is nipping at his heels and determined to take Gru’s place as the greatest bad guy ever…

Despicable Me is the first feature for directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, and it is an absolute triumph, from the laugh-out-loud Tom-and-Jerry battles of Gru and Vector to the delightful lack of saccharine in how Gru learns to love Margo, Edith, and Agnes. It couldn’t be a better film, and it couldn’t be a better feeling to be surprised by a movie again.

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