GOOD BUT NOT GREAT: Despicable Me (2010)

Despicable Me (USA, 2010)
Directed by Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud
Starring Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Miranda Cosgrove

When talking about the film business, there are two kinds of 'trickle' effects that can be observed. One is the 'trickle-up' of talent from the lowest rungs of cinema, exemplified by the career of Wally Pfister: the man who started out shooting straight-to-video erotic thrillers for Greg Dark is now Christopher Nolan's cinematographer-of-choice and a director in his own right. The other is the 'trickle-down' effect, to borrow a term from Adam Smith, in which the characteristics of the most commercially successful films become mirrored and replicated in lower-budget, less prestigious offerings.
It is appropriate to approach Despicable Me in light of the latter effect. The continuing acclaim and popularity of PIXAR films has raised (or at least changed) the standard of what an animated film should do, setting a bar in terms of visual ambition and narrative depth. Of course, not every animated film has met that standard purely as a result of PIXAR being around, but the desire to replicate PIXAR's success through imitation has led to some surprisingly good results. In this case, their influence has turned would could otherwise be completely mediocre into a perfectly passable and charming 90 minutes.
This becomes more of an achievement when you consider that Despicable Me comes from Chris Melanandri, producer of the highly lucrative Ice Age series. Mark Kermode once derided this series, seeing it as a part of what he called "the death of narrative cinema". In his view, these were films whose plots were inconsequential: they consisted of a series of bits which were humorous in a self-contained way but which you could watch in any order, thereby rendering what narrative there was either meaningless or pointless.
To be fair to Kermode (and other critics who shared his view), the narrative of Despicable Me is pretty thin. Its central McGuffin, of Gru trying to steal the Moon, is a villain-of-the-week plan in scale and ambition, that would have been explored in just as much detail in an episode of Doctor Who or any other sci-fi serial. All the other aspects of the plot are either there to pad out this eventual action (e.g. stealing the shrink ray) or trying to put some meat on the main character's bones, with varying degrees of success.
In addition to a thin plot, there are a lot of aspects which are derivative. Showing the action from the villains' point of view is nothing new, nor is the idea of a villains' league: the Austin Powers series is practically based on these concepts. Gru's lab is visually similar to Monsters, Inc., with its factory aesthetic and lots of underlings running around with various bits of machinery. The machines that Gru employes are influenced not only by the Bond series but moreso by Wallace & Gromit: while his creations lack the quirky British character of Nick Park, their bulbous designs and peculiar shapes owe a clear debt to the work of Aardman.
The emotional arc of Despicable Me is also pretty formulaic. As soon as Gru first encounters the three children, we have a pretty good idea as to how their relationship will take shape and where we will all end up. There's nothing inherently wrong with telling a familiar story, provided that the filmmakers make the effort to say something new within their set parameters or at least put a distinctive stamp on the storytelling. Despicable Me partially succeeds, but it does rely on cuteness and novelty to cover up its more well-worn aspects.
Unlike PIXAR's output, Despicable Me is being pitched at an audience of young children rather than a family audience per se. There are a number of 'grown-up' jokes shoved in there Dreamworks-style (the reference to Lehman Brothers, for instance), but in general it makes no bones about its target audience. Its comedy is driven by broad characterisation, slapstick and other physical humour, most of which is provided by the minions and the various mishaps that befall them. It's therefore no surprise that the film is less memorable or rewarding than the likes of Toy Story and Finding Nemo; it attempts to emulate their success but has a very different idea of what constitutes a family film.
While PIXAR's visual and technological innovations have been widely taken up by the industry, their notion of a family film has become admired but not universally imitated. While PIXAR believe a family film is one that is clever and sophisticated enough for both adults and children (assumingly rightfully that children are bright and curious about the world), Dreamworks' attitude is that a family film has one lot of jokes for the adults (e.g. reference humour) and another for the children (e.g. fart jokes) running side by side. This film drifts towards the Dreamworks approach, but lacks the cynicism associated with some of Jeffrey Katzenberg's lazier offerings.
Everything that has been said so far would seem to paint Despicable Me as a failure, a slice of paint-by-numbers mediocrity which, like the Ice Age films, is completely forgettable. But there are a number of aspects to it which are memorable or worthy of praise, and ultimately the film succeeds on an emotional level. As much as we are conscious of its derivative or overly familiar aspects, either during or after watching it, the film does come through on the strength of its comedy and the heart-warming nature of its characters.
Despite the central plot being rather thin, the film is narratively interesting in the way that it characterises Gru. It's quite unusual in mainstream cinema to have a film about single parenting in which the man takes the lead; usually women are depicted as the more traditionally compassionate, sensitive sex, and raising children is not the done thing for 'Hollywood Man' to do. You won't find the levels of insight here that you might find in Kramer vs. Kramer or even Mrs. Doubtfire, but the emotional developments do ring true.
Much of this is down to the voice cast, who are either playing against type or being ably reined in by the directors. Steve Carell has often been very irritating, playing grating, mean-spirited and obnoxious characters which he believes are much funnier than they actually are. But here, there's a playfulness to him, a sense of welcome mischief which makes his more rambling bits of dialogue seem less like a wise-cracking stand-up and more like a real person.
Likewise, Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud deserve huge credit for getting a controlled performance out of Russell Brand. In his live-action work, such as St. Trinian's and the remake of Arthur, Brand has often seemed like a real-life Jack Sparrow - a man of endless, directionless energy, hell-bent on showing off and built on little more than distracting mannerisms. Here, on the other hand, he's completely unrecognisable, turning everything right down to make Dr. Nefario into a poignant, funny and likeable character.
However well the film may stack up against PIXAR, there's little denying that Despicable Me is funny. The slapstick humour is well-timed and inventively choreographed, and the repetitive, uniform nature of the minions provides the perfect means of trying different gags, like the soldiers with the exploding gun in Sleeper. The minions are cute and endearing, causing us to view them as more than cannon fodder, and the physical gags are pure Looney Tunes, right down to the minion floating in space and struggling to dodge the rocket.
The film is further helped by its visuals, which are brightly colourful and inviting. The dominance of primary colours in the colour palette gives the constant impression that we are there to enjoy ourselves, and the distinctive yellow of the minions is a possible nod to The Simpsons, which puts us in the same situation. Equally, the film doesn't feel the need to overpower us with visual trickery, and even though it was created and presented in 3D, there are very few moments of deliberately pointing out at the audience, either with objects or with the characters.
Despicable Me is an enjoyable and competent children's animation which disguises its numerous flaws with a warm atmosphere and lots of laughs. It falls well short of the standard set by PIXAR in both its story and emotional complexity, but still manages to present something which is distinctive and memorable in its own way. It's not going to challenge John Lasseter and co. any time soon, but it's a perfectly pleasant diversion.


NEXT REVIEW: Despicable Me 2 (2013)