Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Movie Review: Despicable Me

Despicable Me

Totally off the cuteness charts.

Despicable Me, directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud.  Screenplay by Ken Daurio and Sergio Pablos.  Starring Steve Carell, Jason Segel, and Russell Brand.  Illumination Entertainment, 2010.  2D and 3D.  95 minutes.  Rated PG for rude humor and mild action.  Catholic News Service Rating is A-I--General Patronage.

Read other reviews here.

Let me start this out by saying I hate CGI cartoons and that stupid 3D gimmick.

Glad that's over with.  Now on to the review.  Some time ago, Hollywood started churning out comic book superhero movies by the dozens, and it was probably inevitable that, after doing that for a while, someone would have to come along and produce movies deconstructing the superhero. Such deconstruction can start out funny and clever with movies such as The Incredibles, and when dragged far enough, eventually reaches its conclusion in flat-out nihilism and ugliness, as in the film adaptation of Watchmen. After a movie like that, there's nowhere else for the whole project to go, except back to the beginning with reconstructed superheroes, or on to further crudity and pointless ugliness, as in the film adaptation of Kick-Ass.

So we shouldn't be surprised that attention is turning away from the superheroes and onto the supervillains, who are now being pulled apart in the same way.  Later on, I've no doubt we'll get something like an anti-Watchmen, which will tell us that villains are really just suffering oedipal complexes or sexual perversions and there's no such thing as evil and it's all meaningless anyway.  But in the meantime, we're still in that early, bracing stage where things are fun and the movies are wholesome.  Hence, Despicable Me, a really great film that's something like a cross between A Series of Unfortunate Events and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.

Our protagonist is Gru (Steve Carell), a third-rate supervillain who in spite of his third-rateness has his own mad scientist assistant, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), and an army of presumably genetically engineered minions, who look something like yellow cheesepuffs wearing goggles.  Down on his luck, Gru is unable to land a loan from the Bank of Evil to fund his next criminal act, the one he's sure will be the ultimate heist.  Pressured by the bank and pestered by a young rival named Vector (Jason Segel), Gru needs to put his plan into action quickly, and for unlikely reasons, his plan requires him to adopt three young orphans from Miss Hattie's Home for Girls.  Although he at first treats the girls in the expected impatient and intolerant comedic bad guy manner, it is not long--of course--before he begins to discover that he enjoys playing with the kids more than he enjoys committing acts of depravity.  At last we arrive at the greatest quandary that can beset an evildoer/adoptive father:  Will he commit the crime of the century, or will he attend the orphan girls' dance recital? 

You already know how this movie goes.  Despicable Me follows formula and does not deviate in the slightest, but that's part of what makes it great.  It doesn't just employ formula, but it gets it right.  The result is a movie with impressive emotional range for a kid flick.  It's not quite Ratatouille, but it's close.  The pace is even and quick, but surprisingly less frantic than some other non-Pixar CGI fare.  To ensure that there's plenty of screwball humor, Despicable Me consistently falls back on the Three Stooges-like antics of the aforementioned cheesepuff minions, who speak in high-speed gibberish and generally interact by punching each other.  Entirely gratuitous scenes feature them wreaking havoc in a grocery store or photocopying their backsides, and during the end credits, they hold a contest to see how far they can stick out of the 3D screen.  But the minion-centered scenes only appear from time to time to keep the pace from flagging, and they never last long enough to make the minions obnoxious.  Most of the humor is more mild.  A couple of decent action sequences make an appearance as well, and the serious scenes in which Gru learns to be a father to the deliriously cute orphans are even effective tear-jerkers, judging from the embarrassing sobbing noises coming from the Deej, the big wuss, who was sitting next to me in the theater and damaging my enjoyment of the film.  Criminey, I hate him.

Somebody or other once said that the reason Casablanca is so good is not because it avoids cliches, but because it uses all the cliches.  The reason cliches are cliches in the first place is because they've worked so well.  Employed badly, they're ridiculous, but employed well, they're profound, or at least touching.  Although Despicable Me is certainly no Casablanca, it is a movie that employs all the cliches and employs them well.  That's not easy to accomplish, and so I must praise the filmmakers' artistic finesse.  If this movie were just a little different, I'd probably be telling you how hackneyed and predictable it is, but it has that magic touch, that special something that makes all the hackneyed elements work so well together that they become the movie's strength rather than its weakness.  Watching Despicable Me feels like curling up in a warm blanket, familiar and comforting.  Also, the minions and orphans together give it a nearly toxic level of cuteness.  Hey, I'm an anime fan.  I like near-toxic cuteness.

The film's only real weakness is the 3D gimmick.  It takes full advantage of the 3D, but that means something's lost when it plays in 2D.

Content Whatever Thingy:  Although by no means as scatalogically fixated as some films aimed at the younger crowd, Despicable Me comes with an occasional fart joke or butt joke (the "fart gun" of the preview being about as bad as it gets).  The minions' interactions are consistently rude, but not nearly as rude as, say, your average Looney Tunes or Tom and Jerry cartoon.  The supposed villainy of the protagonist is tongue-in-cheek and need be taken no more seriously than the supposed piracy in children's pirate stories.

Also, the movie contains fluffy unicorns.  I hate unicorns.  You have no idea just how much I hate unicorns right now.  Especially fluffy ones.  Curse you, Frederick, you burned my cabbage!!
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