Review: Despicable Me

despicable me one sheet

Despicable Me is a surprisingly violent animated movie that suffers from being released within a few weeks of the film Toy Story 3. Where Toy Story 3 has warm characters who seek to do well by each other, Despicable Me is populated by characters who constantly hurt each other as the filmmakers clearly sought a cheap laugh and tried to string together a series of hit-or-miss sight gags.
The story has Gru (voice of Steve Carell trying to sound Russian) as an evil mastermind, ensconced in suburbia with his black Victorian house and huge metal jet car. Beneath his house is a vast subterranean lair where he’s plotting to (insert evil laugh) commit the perfect crime. He’s created little yellow creatures known as minions, and while there are amusing scenes where hundreds of them congregate to hear his evil plans, they generally treat each other in a slapstick violent manner that really got on my nerves and was far too aggressive for a children’s film.
The Great Pyramid of Giza has been stolen by the up-and-coming evil genius Vector (voice of Jason Segel), as shown in an amusing opening sequence. Gru is determined to regain the title of most evil criminal and comes up with a plan to steal the moon. To fund his efforts, he goes to the Bank of Evil seeking a loan, just to bump into Vector and the Spy-vs-Spy competition is on. Gru’s plan to bring down Vector?  Adopt three little girls Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) and use them to break into his lair.
There are a lot of fun sight gags in the film and the story, while predictable, isn’t that terrible. What really upset me was the non-stop level of violence that the characters exhibited towards each other. I realize that’s part of the story, the “comic book slapstick violence”, but I was startled how each time a character would punch, kick, push, shoot or otherwise hurt another that the audience would laugh. That’s not my idea of a good kids film, but if you disagree, you might well find Despicable Me a good diversion.

The three girls, Margo, Edith and Agnes (from oldest to youngest) are orphans, living at the Dickensian Miss Hattie’s Home for Girls. Miss Hattie (voice of Kristen Wiig) is a shrew and forces them to go door-to-door selling cookies and meeting their daily quota. If they don’t, they’re banished to a cardboard box “The Box of Shame” for hours. That’s supposed to be funny?
When they knock on the door to Vector’s lair, he’s delighted to buy cookies from them, which Gru observes. His plan to infiltrate Vector’s lair?  Adopt the girls, have them deliver robot cookies that Gru can control, then return the girls to Miss Hatties.  A suitably despicable and evil plan, no question, and it works perfectly.
despicable me publicity still
Edith, Margo and Agnes from Despicable Me

What Gru wasn’t counting on was the innocence and sweetness of the girls, who conclude post-adoption that he’s their new Dad and pour on the love and wide-eyed adoration. Gru’s Mom (voice of Julie Andrews) has never shown him any affection so he’s not prepared for it, as we learn in a series of scenes that vary from quite funny to fairly stupid.
It’s clear that the script writers had a lot of fun slipping in gags. The Bank of Evil has a sign “formerly Lehman Brothers”, when Gru says goodnight to the girls, he reminds them “don’t let the bedbugs bite: there are thousands of them and probably something in your closet too”, and there’s a running joke of minions misunderstanding what Gru says. “No, I said dart gun!” was one of my favorites.
Still, I left the film disappointed, and I wouldn’t take my children to see it. At one point I felt the urge to walk out, even as everyone else in the audience was laughing and clearly enjoying the movie. Your experience will undoubtedly vary, but I didn’t like Despicable Me much at all.

There are some films where the match of film and production team really make it work well. The recently released Predators is an example: Producer Robert Rodriguez was a great match for the reboot of a tired franchise monster and the resultant film is solid action. Despicable Me left me really wanting to see how another animation team, perhaps led by the tireless John Lassiter, would reduce the slapstick, omit the gags that didn’t work, and create a better, warmer story, while still keeping all the wry sight gags and underlying well-worn story of a mean man brought to redemption through the power of a child’s love.

16 thoughts on “Review: Despicable Me

  1. Steve Oatney

    Some interesting stuff to think about in your review, to be sure. While our opinions differ a bit on this one, I must concede that your review does hit the mark, in all respects. Thanks for this, Dave.

    Reply
  2. Lucretia Pruitt

    Dang it.
    Kidlet is already set on seeing it due to trailers on the Disney Channel.
    We just had to ban iCarly because they think the physical violence between Sam & Freddy which is supposed to be “funny” is the source of increasing “physical” aggressiveness with her. (Based on things she says as well, she’s never had any reason to act that way except due to external examples.)

    Now I’m not sure how to handle this – but agreed with you – physical violence isn’t funny.

    Reply
  3. Greg Bulmash

    Took my wife to see it this evening and my only real complaint was uneven pacing. The sight gags are generally fun and no worse than Buggs, Daffy, and Elmer.

    Taking my boy to see it in 8 hours. Hope he enjoys it.

    Reply
  4. cherra mathis

    Huh. I liked it, but I also wasnt in there to analyze it in any way, just to relax. I think the kids missed 95% of visual gags, and the adults enjoyed the kids enjoying the rest. A thouroughly enjoyable film, in my mind, although not intellectually stimulating.

    Reply
  5. Minion 1

    I agree with Greg Bulmash, the violence is no worse then Looney Toons or Tom and Jerry.

    Saw the movie and loved it.

    Reply
  6. Vector

    I convinced this reviewer to hate on your film Gru!…

    oh yea

    I’m the man…

    oh wait… the cookie girls are here again…

    Reply
  7. deepak

    yeah im from india i just heared about the movie and i just watched it without expectation it wa fantastic and superb comedy and had good emotion and became one of my all times favourite movie…….

    Reply
  8. Gary

    Dave you obviously had your mind made up before you even saw this movie. Sure there are a few crude moments but there are a number of really sweet/cute ones too. Apparently you have chosen to throw the baby out with the bath water(no pun intended). We know that you are not a child and don’t see it from that perspective. You could be one of those critics that only loves the classics.(practically all movies where the queens english is spoken). You should cut through the phony pretentious high-brow attitude and lighten up.

    Reply
  9. Dave Taylor

    To each their own perspective, Gary. I enjoy “high brow” movies like “The Artist”, but have a great appreciation for the “Police Academy” series and “Buckaroo Banzai” is one of my favorite movies. Animation-wise, I think a lot of what’s foisted off on children is just dreck, poorly thought out and often written by people who aren’t parents and aren’t really thinking through the implications of their narrative and story devices. In terms of recent animation I adored “The Adventures of Tintin”.

    So to say I had my mind made up and that I have tossed out that poor baby with his dirty bathwater, well. Maybe not so much. :-)

    Reply
  10. Mike

    Stop taking life so seriously. This was a great entertaining movie. If you aren’t taking your kids to see it because you feel the box of shame endorses violence and child abuse you are living on a different planet. Take the bubble wrap suit off your kid and let them enjoy life a little.

    Reply
  11. Amanda

    Hi Dave!

    My husband, son, and I decided to rent this movie after reading a good amount of reviews. We went into the movie knowing some of what was going on, but to be perfectly honest we wanted to see this just to relax and be a family. So I didnt analyze as much. For once in my sons life, he laughed constantly, instead of being bored, like he was when we went to go see the Lorax. Every movie we have seen with him, we’ve reviewed, monitored, and made sure there wasnt any violence, or puns, etc. For one day I let go. I said, this movie looks soo funny. My son wanted so badly to see it, and I honestly wanted to see it because the little girl reminds me of meice.

    It may not be “appropriate” by certain standards, but I think it is just might be unfair to not let your kids see it. My son has not become violent, he thought it was funny, and that was it. It did not affect his life in any sorts at all. So, I respect as a parent guarding your kids from seeing a movie you dont deem fit for them, but on the other hand, I encourage you to let your kids make that decision, and encourage them to point out wrong or right behaviors. Your not going to merely protect them by not letting them watch this movie. You need to teach them what is right or wrong, and watch them decide. A real independent child is going to decide what is the right thing, theyre not going to take actions from a movie and decide that is how to live their life.

    If there are children who are living through movies like this or icarly to act out aggression of some sort, than it is usually because there is an underlying issue happening in their life that the parents do not know about.

    So before I leave you with that, I am aware others might make snide comments, and my response to them is, No, I do not believe you should allow your child to see Texas Chain Saw, as a parent you should be able to know what deems appropriate as far ratings go, but what I am saying is to maybe let your child be the decider and the critic of a movie for once.

    Take them out to dinner after, ask them what they thought about it, what was right, was wrong, what was funny, what wasnt, and what was their favorite part of the movie. Statistically, 82% of children mimic their parents, so if you taught them well, theyre going to agree and be able to conversate with you about it :)

    Have a wonderful night!

    ~Amanda

    Reply

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