Okay, American movie industry, we get it already. Traditionally overlooked types at the bottom of society’s ladder exist mostly to provide new perspective and crucial life lessons to those at the top. And there’s no heart so hardened or soul so blackened that it can’t be redeemed by plucky orphans, irascible elders, wise immigrants, the mentally disabled, hick-shithole occupants, etc. The CGI kids’ movie Despicable Me is the latest in a long line of films to follow the formula. But it features the most extreme case to date of a shriveled soul who’s far more interesting and enjoyable before he’s “saved.”
The first animated film from Illumination Entertainment—an indie founded by former 20th Century Fox Animation president Christopher Meledandri— Despicable Me takes its visual design, storytelling, and thematic cues from Pixar. The characters’ smooth but tremendously expressive faces and the attention to visual detail—right down to the endangered-species-derived furniture in the house of evil-genius protagonist Gru—is sheer Pixar. So is the focus on family dynamics within the loopy, immersive story, in which Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), an ambitious but so-far unprofitable supervillain, faces off against equally ambitious younger rival Vector (Jason Segel), but gets derailed along the way by three sweet orphans who remind him of how his own childhood dreams went unappreciated by brusque mom Julie Andrews.
Until the “creep + orphans = happy family” formula starts demanding abrupt, unconvincing character mutations, Despicable Me is a giddy joy. It takes place in a world seemingly inspired by The Incredibles—the superheroes are missing, but the cartoon physics, crazy devices, and outsized conquer-the-world plots are all in place, ready to set up big action setpieces with a sly sense of humor. And the screenplay (by Horton Hears A Who! co-writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul) takes time to make Gru an unusually nuanced villain, one who treats his vast army of gibberish-talking minion-creatures with companionable familiarity, and transforms at need from mild bumbler into honest-to-goodness bad-ass. Some of the apparent homages are a little too familiar, like the evil bank exec modeled after Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss, or the youngest orphan, who seems to be Monsters, Inc.’s Boo, plus a year or so. But mostly, Despicable Me is a joyously creative, refreshing piece of work, right up until it falls into a hackneyed hole.