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.
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.