Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Despicable Me (2010) Review

Despicable Me
There’s a new talent in town.

For years now, DreamWorks and that unbeatable juggernaut called Pixar have dominated the animation genre. DreamWorks has thrived on its lucrative Shrek franchise for almost a decade now, while also developing other efforts such as Antz, Kung Fu Panda, and How to Train Your Dragon. And of course there’s no need to explain Pixar’s essentially flawless filmography, which includes the recently finished Toy Story trilogy, Finding Nemo, Up, and The Incredibles (my vote for best animated movie ever). But aside from those two giants, all other animation movies have mostly either been done independently, across the oceans, or when Disney realizes that they can still make good ones when they return to their roots (The Princess and the Frog). Well now I think we can happily introduce a newcomer to the lineup, Illumination Studios, which has made a fine debut for today’s review in Despicable Me.

Plot Synopsis: In a world where superheroes don’t exist, Gru is one of the top supervillains in the world. However, the Bank of Evil, who funds all supervillains, believes that he’s starting to get too old and they need to bring in fresh blood to stir up interest. Falling into that fresh blood category is Vector, who also happens to be the son of the man who runs the bank. Now Vector has recently made a big splash in the world by stealing the Pyramid of Giza, so Gru hatches up an even grander plan in which he will shrink and then steal the moon. However, Vector soon steals the shrink ray that Gru had recently just acquired, and Gru must figure out how to nab the ray from Vector’s seemingly impenetrable fortress. Through a series of coincidences, Gru comes across three orphans named Margo, Edith, and Agnes whom he then will adopt and use to steal the ray back because they can get in by selling Vector their cookies. But soon, the girls begin to grow on Gru and he has to choose to either be a cold-hearted villain or caring father to them.


I wasn’t quite sure what to think about Despicable Me as the release date was slowly approaching. The first trailer was quite tantalizing with its premise of a super villain as the hero and the long list of strong comedy actors such as Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Will Arnett, Kristin Wiig, and Julie Andrews. However, the second trailer temporarily turned me off because I thought they were diluting the story to appeal to kids more. And while I did feel the movie could’ve been stronger had its sense of humor been darker, the villains-as-heroes angle still helps to make the film stand out. In fact, the complete absence of any heroes was a bit of a refresher as the movie set up a world run by villains competing to outdo one another. Now that doesn’t mean the humor has been entirely toned down, there are still quite a few jokes that have some edge to them, and even the more cutesy ones are pretty hilarious in their own right. There’s one gag involving the former name of the so-called Bank of Evil that should get a good laugh out of adults, even as it flies over their children’s heads, as well as several references to older movies that only adult film buffs may catch.


But the funniest and most memorable aspect of the movie most definitely belongs to Gru’s little yellow Minions, who’ve clearly been inspired by the green aliens from Toy Story. They frequently steal the scenes they appear in, especially with their gibberish voices going up against comedy heavyweights. Carell makes a great villain we still love, milking his exaggerated Russian accent to great comic effect and doing some pretty, (ahem) despicable things. But it’s to Carell’s credit that we can still sympathize with this manic man and also believe in his transformation from cold-hearted bastard to caring father. Of course he also has some strong support from Miranda Cosgrove (Margo), Dana Gaier (Edith), and Elsie Fisher (Agnes) as the three orphans. Jason Segel also has some fun as Vector, who bears a striking similarity to Bill Gates, but I couldn’t believe in the character as a true-blue threat to Gru, possibly because the script can’t decide whether he’s a talentless crackpot (some ridiculous weapons) or a certified genius (his impenetrable lair). Other supporters like the previously mentioned Arnett, Wiig, Brand, and Andrews were also good in their roles, although I was disappointed that Brand’s voice as Dr. Nefario was very indistinct.

Something that also caught my attention was the animation style employed by the first time directing double-team of Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud. The designs for many of the places, and especially the characters, have a striking European influence in their look. Each character has their own specific look made to emphasize their personalities, which makes their already humorous lines of dialogue even more so. You can see it in Gru’s stereotypically evil design and the already mentioned Bill Gates look for Vector. Despite these unique aspects, there were a couple things that I thought took me out of the moment occasionally, such as a few instances of egregious product placement. There was also a few times where the Pixar influences were starting to get more noticeable. But with the exception of those minor flaws and some wasted vocal actors, I still had some good fun viewing Despicable Me, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise.


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