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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

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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Despicable Me (2010)
US/Can release: Jul 09 2010
UK/Ire release: Oct 15 2010

MPAA: rated PG for rude humor and mild action
BBFC: rated U (contains very mild scary scenes, slapstick violence and language)

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Kudos for standing your ground. People get violent of “Toy Story,” but somebody had to take a stand.

  • Ryan H

    Excellent. I have been hungry for something funny that didn’t involve two hours of someone’s humiliation.

  • Orangutan

    I must know. Is there an ‘It is very dark. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.’ joke anywhere in there? :)

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    Very cool. Just glad I have some money to finally see movies again, with both this and Inception coming out.

    I’m going to see Toy Story 3 tonight, finally.

  • MaryAnn

    I must know. Is there an ‘It is very dark. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.’ joke anywhere in there? :)

    Not that I remember. There is a funny joke about lighting up a place that’s dark, but it’s a sight joke.

  • When I saws the first trailer for it sometime last year, I thought it looked really bad. Also, it had overtones of the “Series of Unfortunate Events” books.

    The second trailer really grabbed me.

    I like Toy Story; it’s cute, but when I saw it a second time, I was bored. Despicable Me doesn’t look boring.

  • Nate

    Just as long as you don’t say it’s better than WALL-E, we’re cool

  • markyd

    Well, that was a positive review. When I first saw the trailer I was excited until the three kids showed up. Then, it suddenly became less interesting. Looks to me like a “mean/bad/grumpy/whatever guy gets his heart melted by the power of…kids?” cliche story. Been there. Done that. Snore.
    But your review seems to suggest otherwise. That would be welcome, but it still doesn’t look as crazily original and refreshing as you make it sound. Then again, nothing does anymore. We’ll see.

  • markyd – I’m a certified cynical kid-hater and I really liked this film. I was surprised to find myself smiling through the whole thing. The kids aren’t sugary or fakey, which is part of it. Another part is that there’s a lot of fun cartoon sci-fi stuff going on. Also, I appreciated that the voices were not “stunt cast” – all actors involved can do more than just one familiar famous voice.

  • I suppose someone’s gonna have to say it.


    There. Done.

  • Jon

    I don’t know why but I didn’t expect you to like it.

    I found TS3 to be a masterpiece, but this movie looks great too. I expect to rate it around 4 stars. It looks like a lot of fun.

  • Chris

    The only department I found Despicable Me to be better than Toy Story 3 in was the 3D department, and the roller coaster scene is almost as good as the flight scene from How To Train Your Dragon.

    Now dont get me wrong, I liked this movie and definetly would say it’s worth paying full price for, but there are some shortcomings. The begining is slow, and it’s only until Gru takes the girls home that the movie starts to really shine. The other problem I had with the film was the main villian, Vector. In one sense were lead to believe he isnt that great of a villian (see squid and piranha) and on the other hand we forced to accept that he some how pulled off the biggest heist the world has seen. Well which is it? I think if we had seen Vector’s heist it may have added to his legitimacy as the top villian.

    Those two complaints out of the way though the movie is great with awesome vocal performances from Steve Carell Russell Brand and Jason Segal. Mary Ann is right to promote the awesomeness of “it’s so fluffy, you’re gonna die!” and the minons provide great slapstick humor throughout the film. Most importantly, the movie has heart, the key ingredient to any family film.

  • Nate

    Just got back from seeing it, and I also respectfully disagree that it’s better than Toy Story 3. It’s definitely a good movie with moments of originality and a lot of heart, but the humor seemed pretty random at times.

    I’m sure kids will love it. I could practically sense the franchise developing as the movie progressed.

  • Chris

    Wow, cant believe this is now your number one movie of the year, but hey to each his/her own. I like the movie fine, especially for kids, but personally I just didnt think the story was that original or anywhere as moving and fulfilling as say Toy Story 3, and it certianly lacks the cinematic beauty of Shutter Island. Heck it wouldnt even be my second favorite animated movie of the year, or the best 3D movie I’ve seen this year (How To Train Your Dragon). I wonder if months from now you’ll wonder if you ranked the movie so highly because you truly thought it was that great of a film, or because it was the first movie you saw in a while that gave you a good sense of joy and reminded you just how fun a good movie experience can be.

  • I had to get out of the house today, so I went to a morning screening of Despicable.

    Well. It was okay. Better than Toy Story 3? Sorry, not really. It *is* better than 90 percent of the crap in the other theaters so…

    Loved the minions. Obviously so, the filmmakers must have had fun coming up with those guys.

    I posted this bit elsewhere discussing the movie: “But sitting there, my unemployed self, I noticed the bit that most kids would miss: the Aesop of how small business, employment, and the benefits of economic stimulus all depended on the largess of massive corporate banks.” Even evil corporate banks that once were Lehman Brothers.

  • Mel

    Chris –
    Vector stole the pyramid – he uses it as his house, hard to miss the huge pyramid-shaped Fortress of Vector.

  • markyd

    I see my original post up above. I was right about this movie without ever seeing it.
    I took my son to see this yesterday. It was mildly entertaining, but nowhere near as special as MAJ made it sound. I didn’t even find it to be all that original.
    The minions were fun, as expected, but too many other things bugged me.
    Vector is a horrible villain nemesis. Incredibly annoying and unfunny.
    And the girls? Yup. Everything played out exactly as I thought it would. Gag.
    My son liked it well enough, but he’s only 9.
    Both Toy Story 3 and How To Train Your Dragon are way better than this. Oh well.

  • I don’t have a whole lot of room in my present budget for first-run movies but I’m glad I caught this at a matinee.

    Yes, I can think of “kid’s movies” I’ve liked more: A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Incredibles, Aladdin, etc. But I wasn’t disappointed in this the way others appear to have been and there were many moments that were quite funny.

    I’m kinda surprised to see MaryAnn quoting the Agnes character so much when she (MaryAnn, that is) reminds me so much of an older version of Edith or Margo. But then for all I know, her favorite Powerpuff Girl was Bubbles and anyway, it is her site.

  • New. That’s the word. Not a remake of something 20 years old. Not a part 17 like Freddy, Jason, Rocky, Rambo, Toy Story, Shrek…. the list goes on. A new story that was fresh and fun. Heart warming. I am shocked that there are no major “after movie” promos happening. No lunchbox or backpack, no Despicable Me Toys. That part I do not understand.

  • Joy

    I did not care for this. I can turn my brain off and accept some things and move on, but tonight I just found myself unable to get past the emotional and physical chills abuse by Ms. Hattie. People all around were giggling at the box of shame and I just sat there appalled. Add to that the other just downright mean things Gru did to kids in the opening minutes and I just had a difficult time with it. Once the heart-melting stuff happened later I was better, but no way is this better than. TS3 or HTTYD. And I usually agree with Maryann.

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