Despicable Me (2010) dir. Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
Starring: (Voices of...) Steve Carrell, Jason Segal, Russell Brand and Julie Andrews
By Greg Klymkiw
They can doll these things up all they like, but most contemporary animated films are pretty much interchangeable and in spite of inexplicably over-the-top critical orgasms and astounding boxoffice, Despicable Me falls squarely into the been-there-done-that category. I can understand why most critics are raving about the movie. Most of them aren't what I'd bother to call critics - they're mere hacks (at worst) and/or glorified studio publicists (at best). What I don't understand is all the bucket-loads of family audiences filling the theatres for mediocre crap like this. Are these families that desperate for entertainment they can enjoy together that they'll succumb to almost any familiar, over-hyped picture, or are they merely that dull, unimaginative and stupid?
Despicable Me is a pallid reversal on The Incredibles, focusing upon a network of super-villains as opposed to the latter's world of Superheroes. One of the big differences between the two is that The Incredibles is made by a director (Brad Bird) who not only has a great sense of humour and storytelling, but a real appreciation for epic sweep and a true geek's affinity for the kind of derring-do that his fellow "losers" in the audience are also imbued with. Bird's film displays originality, genuine wit and thoroughly pulse-pounding action - action that is rooted in the dramatic beats, but is also expertly designed in terms of overall geography and pace. Despicable Me, on the other hand, is full of stale gags and a ho-hum plot. Most of all, the action sequences are frenetic, chaotic and have absolutely no sense of geography and/or dramatic resonance.
The plot, such as it is, deals with Gru (Steve Carrell), the world's Super-Villain #2 and his desire to unseat the young Super-Villain #1, an upstart by the name of Vector (Jason Segal). With the help of three cute-as-a-button orphans, Gru undertakes to become the most evil, heinous villain in the world. This dastardly curmudgeon is, however, transformed into a much kinder individual thanks to the charms of the orphans and his growing (ugh!) love for them.
Sound vaguely familiar? I thought so. It's a variation on virtually every contemporary animated movie.
For me, I found the whole affair so familiar that I genuinely can't remember much more than the dull plot. None of the jokes resonated with me at all. They were strictly dullsville. The opening sight gag involving the theft of the pyramids in Egypt is decent enough, but has apparently been screened in its entirety for months as a trailer.
Even though it's a family picture, would it have been so hard to shoehorn some delightfully, nastily, almost malevolent dark humour? It is, after all, a cartoon and that's the sort of humour both adults and kids love (a la the Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner cartoons from Warners). In the film's favour, we weren't inundated with endlessly annoying contemporary pop-culture references that are supposed to be funny and which, of course, are going to date all the pathetic animated films that do.
The look of the film is not without a few shreds of merit, but many of the gadgets and characters - while serviceable for the film's running time - don't last in the memory banks.
The vocal performances - while competent - are bereft of the sort of Cliff Edwards brilliance that knocks you on your butt and stays with you forever.
The pace, due to the frenetic nature of things, actually bogs the picture down. The Incredibles, for example, is twenty minutes longer and zips by so effortlessly, that one doesn't even want it to end. Despicable Me, on the other hand, inspires endless glances at one's trusty watch.
Other than being relatively inoffensive and reasonably watchable for its 95-minute running time, those are about the only things in its favour. Again, all I can ask is this: are audiences so starved for family-friendly material that they'll gladly watch any dung shovelled down their collective gullets? Frankly, there are any number of solid movies on the big screen and available for rent to watch at home that, while not "family friendly" in terms of being machine-tooled as such, families would be doing themselves and their kids a favour to avoid stuff like Despicable Me and see something else instead.
My own 9-year-old daughter loves the highly imaginative sci-fi horror picture Splice and has seen it several times on a big screen. It thrilled her, entertained her, stayed with her, provoked numerous helpings and most importantly, stimulated the sort of mind-expanding discourse that more kids would benefit from. Recent movies she watched on video included Oliver Stone's The Doors, the tremendously moving Al Pacino-Johnny Depp crime picture Donnie Brasco, a handful of Sidney Toler Charlie Chan pictures from Monogram and the classic Paul Newman-directed adaptation of Paul Zindel's powerful play, The Effect of Gamma Rays Upon Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. The results she derived with those pictures were equally rewarding as the pleasure Splice delivered to her.
So why drag the kids to such unimaginative fare? I don't want to believe that these parents and their progeny are equally unimaginative, but as one animated picture after another with a similar pedigree continues to rake in big dollars, I can only assume the worst.
My esteemed colleague here at Daily Film Dose has already pointed out the utter uselessness of the Real-D 3-D technology and I'm happy to do the same. All the technology really does is point to the emptiness of the work itself and worse, it actually renders mediocrity even more mediocre - due to the fact that all the picture's colours are darkened and muted to a point where one wonders what the point of the technology is? My own daughter, usually removes her 3-D glasses and she's not alone. At a recent screening of Despicable Me, I saw a ton of kids do likewise. Now, when I do bother to suggest an animated or family friendly picture to her, my daughter wants to know if it's in 3-D and if so, asks if we can see it in 2-D. The point of this technology is obvious - it has nothing to do with aesthetic considerations, but is simply a pathetic attempt to rope audiences into seeing something that's completely mediocre.
And finally, that's pretty much what Despicable Me is. It's so mediocre it doesn't even have the benefit of being dreadful enough to elicit utter hatred.