Friday, July 9, 2010
Movie review: Despicable Me
There's a lot to love about Despicable Me, especially if you like small, yellow, pill-shaped creatures.
Pixar has so dominated the animation field over the past 15 years, in terms of both quality and success, that most other efforts tend to get lost in the shuffle. Sure, you have your occasional Shrek or Ice Age, but those seem more like blips on the radar than continued excellence. However, 2010 may be the year that Pixar has to fight for the animation title. We've already seen one great competitor, How to Train Your Dragon, and now comes another: Despicable Me.
Despicable Me, unlike Dragon, comes to us from relatively unknown entities. It is the first production for Illumination Entertainment (the film is being released by Universal Pictures), and co-directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud are making their feature debuts (although Renaud did co-direct a Scrat short for Ice Age). Writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul have the highest profiles in the bunch, having co-written 2008's Horton Hears a Who! (among other films).
But when you come up with something original and entertaining, lack of experience doesn't mean a thing. The (anti)hero of Despicable Me is Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), who's desperate to be thought of as the World's Most Evil Villain. The only problem is that another villain, Vector (Jason Segel), seems to be outwitting him at every turn (his latest evil deed? Stealing the Great Pyramid and replacing it with an inflatable version). When Gru sees three orphans penetrate Vector's numerous home defenses by selling him cookies, he comes up with an ingenious (evil) plan: Adopt the orphans and use them to help steal the latest (evil) technological breakthrough, the shrink ray. What Gru doesn't anticipate is that the three girls just might steal his heart, too.
What makes Despicable Me work so well are all the little touches. Gru's home, set on an otherwise nondescript suburban street, looks every bit the dwelling of a villain, from the all-black exterior to the dead animals used for everything from art to furniture. On the other side of town, Vector has somehow hidden the pyramid at his house ... by painting it to look like the sky (a great sight gag that goes mostly unacknowledged). Gru's plan to steal the moon is in jeopardy not because he can't steal enough money, but because the Bank of Evil is refusing to lend him the funds.
But what everybody will be talking about after seeing the film will be Gru's minions, a vast horde of small pill-shaped yellow creatures who do his bidding. It's easy to see why Gru may not have reached the level of evildom he's desired yet, as the minions are collectively quite clumsy and easily distracted. That's bad for Gru but great for the audience, as they provide seemingly endless amounts of hilarity with every move they make. The fact that they speak only in grunts and squeaks makes their actions that much funnier.
While the use of 3D in animated films can often be superfluous since computer-generated animation is so crystal clear anyway, Despicable Me makes some of the best use of the technology yet. The “camera” takes the viewers on a roller coaster ride, literally, when Gru takes the orphans to an amusement park. Gru's mission to steal the moon naturally leads to a sequence in space, where the stars and other space items have never seemed more in reach. And the general over-the-top nature of the story lends itself well to the in-your-faceness of 3D.
One denominator that this film has in common with Dragon is its choice of voice actors. While many of the names are relatively big, they all seem to have been chosen with an ear toward comedic talent. Carell and Segel are actually semi-unrecognizable, with both affecting accents, but that doesn't stop them from generating huge laughs. Likewise, Russell Brand (Get Him to the Greek), as Gru's assistant Dr. Nefario, changes up his familiar Cockney accent by making it sound older (and a bit like Michael Caine in the process). Other funny people in the cast include Will Arnett, Ken Jeong, Danny McBride, Kristen Wiig, Mindy Kaling, Jemaine Clement, and Jack McBrayer. And to top it off, they nabbed Julie Andrews as Gru's never-satisfied mom.
Toy Story 3 may have been gobbling up the family moviegoing dollar up till this point in the summer, but Despicable Me should bump it off that mountaintop. Its filmmakers make almost all the right moves and show, like Pixar, that appealing to both kids and adults can be easy when you know what you're doing.