REVIEW: Despicable Me Delivers With Retro Zest to Spare
We've lost something now that elaborate, sophisticated full-length animated movies have become big business in Hollywood: Technical proficiency is up. But disreputability is way, way down. Pixar has set the bar high for superior quality, perceived classiness, and allegedly deep, soulful thematic undercurrents, and other studios have scrambled to compete. Even Dreamworks' Shrek movies, with their piled-on pop-culture references and ever-so-gentle boogery gross-outs, feel highly mechanized rather than breezy. Nothing in animation feels casual anymore, and worse, so much of it is designed to encourage good behavior and love for our fellow human beings. No anvils falling on heads, no coyotes being blown up by TNT. It's enough to make you make you want to blast your own duckbill off with a shotgun. At last, Universal offers a raygun of hope with Despicable Me, a picture that manages to feel both original and pleasingly nostalgic without straining for either effect.
The superhero of Despicable Me is actually a not-so-supervillain: Gru is a scowling misanthrope in a zip-up turtleneck and slim mod pants -- he looks a little like Alfred Molina as reimagined by Charles Addams -- who speaks, borrowing the voice of Steve Carell, in a thick-as-Borscht, phony-as-heck Russian accent. That means he often mangles his syntax deliciously and effortlessly: "Ah, you've got to be pulling on my leg," he says crossly when he gets some bad news.
Gru is, to put it simply, a hateful human being. He uses a freeze gun on the other customers at the local coffee shop so he can cut to the front of the line (and after he gets his java, he freezes the clerk just for kicks). Then he motors back to his supervillain pad -- nestled incongruously in the middle of cheerful suburbia -- in a fat armored SUV that hogs the road and emits massive black clouds of stinky exhaust. In his home supervillain laboratory, he's assisted by a toothless, hunched-over codger named Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) and thousands of diminutive, chattery, googly-eyed creatures he calls his minions. (They're shaped like yellow cold-medicine capsules, and each sports a distinctive pattern of pointy Rogaine hairs sprouting from his or her little chrome dome.)
But Gru is a very unhappy supervillain. Apparently, a smarter villain than he has stolen the Pyramid of Giza. Gru has stolen nothing himself in a very long time, and nothing of much import: He's proud of the fact that he stole the Statue of Liberty, but he's quick to note that it's the Vegas version, not the New York one. Gru's feathers are further ruffled when he learns that a rival villain, Vector (Jason Segel), a pot-bellied nerd with a bowl haircut and Swifty Lazar glasses, has the shrink-ray gun that he covets. So, posing as a creepy dentist, he adopts three orphan girls -- Margo, Edith and Agnes, voiced by Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier and Elsie Fisher -- as part of his plan to procure the shrink-ray gun and then use it to steal the moon. Because -- well, why not?
Political incorrectness, numerous unapologetically crass gags having to do with various bodily functions, rude use of the Spanish language: Despicable Me has it all, and its joyful recklessness is contagious. The screening I attended was filled with little kids who afterward streamed out of the theater hooting and hollering as if they'd had nothing to eat but Kool-Aid and Trix for 12 days. To hell with that childlike sense-of-wonder crap: Despicable Me, instead of trying to return adults to a false state of innocence, reminds us that we all started out as ill-mannered little savages. And, by extension, it also reminds us that the niceties of adult life -- good manners, basic decency, the capacity to love -- are all hard-earned and hard-won, and the parents, grandparents, caretakers and teachers who taught them to us probably earned quite a few gray hairs in the process. They're not things to be taken for granted.
Because despite the naughty, "school's out" euphoria of Despicable Me, this is a movie with a heart. The picture is the first offering from Illumination Entertainment, an arm of Universal headed by former 20th Century Fox Animation president Chris Meledandri. (It was directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud; the script is by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, from a story by Sergio Pablos.) The animation was produced in France, and with its soft but vibrant colors and stylish touches -- like the subtle grooviness of Gru's Yardbirds-style outfits -- it does throw off at least a faint Eurovibe. And though the movie is reasonably action-packed, it never feels manic or aggressively paced. (The trailer, in fact, makes it look far less calm and measured than it really is.) It's also the only animated movie I can think of since Henry Selick's Coraline that makes smart and somewhat wicked use of 3-D technology: Even its end-credit sequence cleverly attempts to physically bridge the metaphorical gap between screen and audience.
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