Thursday, July 29, 2010

Movie: Despicable Me

Late to the party on this one. This is a review that didn't get written so soon after seeing the movie for some reason, despite knowing pretty well what I wanted to write about it. That right there was an awful sentence, quasi-alliteration aside.

I think I saw a Despicable Me trailer for the first time around winter, and it was pretty sparse; it showed the sequence of Gru (voice of Steve Carell) trying to break into Vector's (voice of Jason Segal) fortress and the many ways in which he utterly failed. That was pretty much it. From that I construed a pretty different idea of what the movie would be about, because of my own background. Several years ago, a video game was made called Evil Genius, which put the player in the role of a, well, Evil Genius, and allowed them to build a sinister fortress into which unpleasant superspies were constantly trying to sneak. It was a bit on the silly side, including insidious torture devices like a giant blender that spun the spies around until they got dizzy. I've also read a book called Evil Genius (no relation between franchises), so one can see why I was already hatching a plot in my head involving Gru and Vector's competition for world's most awesome super villain. In this, I was only half right.

The entire subplot - which sort of becomes the main plot - about three orphan girls was pretty much news to me shortly before the movie was released. For those not in the know, Gru's villainous deeds of late have been less than breaking news-worthy, and the Evil Bank doesn't want to grant him any more loans unless he is up to something really dastardly. He decides to steal the moon. Unfortunately, the Shrink Ray he steals for this task is then re-stolen by Vector. Hence Gru's attempts to break into his house and get it back. Cue three orphan sisters who have been selling cookies in the neighborhood. Gru adopts them as a means to gain access to Vector's house, which proves successful, and hijinks ensue. Post-heist, Gru attempts to abandon the girls, as he no longer needs them, at an amusement park, but is coerced by a ride operator to accompany the girls. During the course of the day, they bond. The rest of the movie revolves around Gru's increasing affection for the girls and his decreased interest in being villainous.

Carell plays Gru with a Eastern European accent - which he maintains very well throughout - and not a guy who is so much truly evil as a maladjusted misanthrope. He doesn't seem to like people at all, but he doesn't go around kidnapping babies for ransom.

There are a few flashback sequences intended to sort of explain how he got that way, but Gru's background story is too stunted. It seems to be intended mostly to justify his behavior, rather than establish him as a character, which is confusing in light of the development that ensues. Compared to the three sisters, though, his back story is practically a novella. The only thing we know about the girls is that they are orphans. It's not really critical to understand why, but it would have been a little interesting and certainly not extraneous. One of the interesting aspects of the sisters is that, despite constant reasons to suspect Gru is a pretty awful guy, they make a go of it - partly because they desperately want a family, and partly because I think they have a little bit of villain in them. They don't accept Gru out of innocence and because they don't know any better, but rather because they seem to just think it's all pretty neat.

Illumination Entertainment, who made the movie, plays it smart by not trying to go too Pixar on the audience. The movie is ultimately a character-driven tale, but it doesn't come off as too sappy and the real focus remains on the main foursome. Them, and the Minions. The Minions make this movie better than it would be. A sort of Oompa Loompa-ish tribe of little yellow dudes, some with only a single Cyclopian eye and all with goggles, the Minions are the sense of humor in this movie. Nothing is ever explained as to how what they are or how they came to work for Gru in his secret underground lair, but it's not necessary. They all have personalities, and despite not speaking English, it's never hard to discern what they try to communicate. Generally speaking, 10 minutes doesn't go by without some Minion time, but the movie works without them well enough that it isn't a chore to wait for the next comical interlude.

There are other characters, but this is a story about Gru and the girls. Agnes, the youngest, is decidedly adorable, if not quite up to Boo standards. She has a few exceedingly memorable lines involving things that are fluffy, and her sisters are developed enough that they remain distinct in ways other than their age.

Despicable Me is not on the level of most of Pixar's output. Toy Story 3 is a better movie - but the gap has closed considerably since 1995 between Pixar and everyone else. Despicable Me is proof that if a company tries to blaze their own trail, instead of apply some Pixar-ish template to an animated movie, it can succeed on its own merit. It helps to have excellent comic actors behind the scenes and a premise that's clever enough to know when to stay out of the spotlight.

If anyone wants to buy me a plush Minion, I won't say no.