What It Is
Life as a super-villain isn’t what it used to be. Just ask Gru (voiced by Steve Carell). Once a renowned evil genius, he had little trouble cooking up crimes and maintaining his big bad rep. But as Despicable Me begins, Gru is feeling pressure from a new kid on the block: when slick young Vector (Jason Segel) steals the Great Pyramid of Giza, he grabs headlines and makes Gru look “lame.” Even when Gru comes up with a great way to top that stunt by stealing the moon, he finds the Bank of Evil unwilling to make him the usual loan. Drat. Now he can’t finance the shrink-ray gun he’ll need in order to make the moon small enough to steal.
Still, Gru’s not easily daunted. He’s spent a long childhood — noted in repeated flashbacks — being scolded and deflated by his judgmental mother (Julie Andrews), and so he tends to bounce back from trouble. And so it’s not long before he comes up with a way to steal a shrink-ray gun from Vector’s super-slick, super-secure white fortress (located just across town from Gru’s more traditional villain’s abode, all tall and dark and shuttered). Like every other one of Gru’s plans, this one is madcap: he adopts a trio of orphaned sisters, then sends them to Vector’s front door under the guise of selling cookies.
Little does Gru expect that the girls — Margo (Miranda Cosgrove, of iCarly), Agnes (Elsie Fisher), and Edith (Dana Gaier) — are irresistibly adorable, as well as looking for a wonderful daddy to take care of them forever (little Edith says that when she learned they were being adopted by a bald man, she imagined it would be like Little Orphan Annie). They accept that he’s odd, that he builds contraptions in the basement, and that his minions (little yellow helpers who scramble about and do all of Gru’s bidding without question). The girls come to love his ugly little dog, his freeze-gun, and even his grumpy resistance to reading them bedtime stories. Starting on their favorite, a cutesy tale about “three sleepy kittens,” he just can’t help himself: “This is garbage!” he yells. The girls wait patiently as he turns back to the book and keeps reading.
As Gru learns self-control and takes responsibility for his own actions and his adopted daughters, Despicable Me makes the case that he’s also growing up. At last, he finds out that it’s good to be good.
Why It’s Fun
From Steve Carell’s cartoony villain’s accent to the girls’ earnest excitement when they get to order pizza — “with stuffed crust!” — Despicable Me is full of fun, energy, and new looks at old stories (see also: “Fractured Fairy Tales” on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show). If the basic plot goes pretty much where you expect, and the villain becomes a hero, the pathway to this end is quite delightful.
The jokes are fresh and on beat.
Some are aimed at adults: the Bank of Evil’s front door features a plaque that reads, “Formerly Lehman Brothers,” and when Vector, who keeps trying to be “cool,” has to explain to the little girls that his track suit and fanny pack are not corny.
But most of the gags are made for children: slapsticky stunts on flying machines or slow-moving crashes in Gru’s ostentatious armored street vehicle, as well as pratfalls, funny faces, and even one quick shot to a crotch. The physical humor is complemented by verbal gags, at which Carell excels, as Gru mutters and spews and gulps his way through being a new parent.
Who’s Going To Love It
Kids and grown-ups alike will love the relationship between Gru and his girls, as they win over his cranky heart and help him to see that he doesn’t need to replay his mommy-inspired insecurity for the rest of his life.
All viewers will also appreciate the colorful animation and even the 3D, which is most emphatic when Gru takes his new family on a whopping big roller coaster ride. The 3D offers basic depth here (the roller coaster’s zooming down steep tracks), but it also helps enhance movement in and out of space, as when Gru sneaks into Vector’s house and is confronted by his nemesis’ pet shark. The thing keeps lunging at Gru from behind the tank where it lives, which takes up most of the living room floor.
What To Be Aware Of
In a movie about supervillains, you have to expect lots of bad behavior. Here it’s delivered with an appealing mix of guilelessness and occasional low-level snark.
Gru’s grouchiness is established right away, when he threatens a neighbor whose dog is leaving “little bombs” all over Gru’s front lawn, then makes it his business to twist a balloon into a darling animal, then pop it, just to watch a child cry. He scares the girls with tales of bedbugs and takes a while to warm up to them, refusing to kiss them good night.
His mother says some very mean things to little Gru in flashbacks, squashing his desire to be an astronaut (“I thought they stopped sending monkeys into space”) and making fun of his other ambitions.
Not only do the villains lie and cheat and steal, they also invent all manner of dastardly weapons: Vector makes sloppy and inaccurate guns that shoot piranhas and squids, while Gru’s Gadget-making assistant, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) misunderstands the instruction to come up with a dart gun and instead makes a fart gun — with predictable results (!).
When the girls first start exploring Gru’s house, one wanders into one of his traps by accident, and it looks for a second like there’s blood dripping from inside: it turns out to be her berry juice box, punctured.
The minions also act out, stumbling over themselves to get their assorted jobs done (as when three of them go wonderfully gaga in a department store, where they’ve been sent to find a unicorn toy for Agnes) or whiling away one evening by xeroxing images of their yellow bottoms.
At Miss Hattie’s Orphanage, when the kids don’t meet expectations, Miss Hattie (Kristen Wiig) puts them in the Box Of Shame (literally, a cardboard box labeled with crayons). And yet, even Miss Hattie is not so simple as she seems: when Gru lies to her in order to adopt the children (the minions pad his resume, and he pretends he can speak multiple languages), he hurts her feelings and she lets him know. It’s a positive lesson for the villain, and other kids who might want to make fun of an easy target.
10 out of 10
Director: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
Cast: Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Kristen Wiig, Elsie Fisher, Will Arnett, Miranda Cosgrove, Julie Andrews, Dana Gaier
US Premiere: July 9, 2010
UK Premiere: October 15, 2010