Film Review: Despicable Me (2010)

“When we got adopted by a bald guy, I thought this’d be more like Annie.”

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If you lived or worked in New York City over the summer, then you know that the promotional campaign for Despicable Me 2 was constantly in your face.  Little, yellow minions laughing at you from gigantic billboards, the roofs of taxi cabs, the posters on every bus stop…like it or not, this movie was EVERYWHERE.  Probably to desperately remind you that an animated movie besides Monsters University was coming out this summer.  And I sorely needed the reminder.

Truthfully, I remembered little to nothing about the original Despicable Me.  I had seen it in theaters with friends, and I remembered liking it…but, three years later, I could barely recall the main character’s name.  So, when I finally did see Despicable Me 2, you can imagine my surprise when I realized I actually really enjoyed the sequel.  Definitely not because of the plot, maybe because of the characters…but mostly because it was just so damn funny.

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Seriously, Despicable Me 2 is joke, after joke, after joke – from witty one-liners, to a cross-dressing sequence, to perfectly timed slapstick a lá Family Guy.  The adults in the audience were laughing harder than the kids.  It’s almost a month later, and my boyfriend and I are still quoting this movie.

So, if the sequel is so hilarious, then why the hell couldn’t I remember a single thing about the original?  I decided to find out, and I hope you’ll join me on this exciting journey.  Without further ado, this is Despicable Me.

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In a reality where evil is a profession and super-villains manage secret lairs in the suburbs, Gru (Steve Carell) considers himself the best in the business.  That is, until he learns that the spotlight has fallen on a new, up-and-coming villain named Vector (Jason Segel), who has stolen the Great Pyramid of Giza.   With his pride wounded, Gru hatches a plan to shrink and steal the moon and commit the crime of the century.  Gru sets his plan into motion with the help of his army of minions, but complications ensue when Vector acquires the world’s only shrink ray.  After multiple attempts, Gru fails to break into Vector’s lair and steal the shrink ray, but he observes three orphaned girls who easily gain access to the lair while selling girl-scout cookies.  Gru selfishly adopts the girls and uses them to infiltrate Vector’s fortress; meanwhile, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith, and Agnes just want a dad.  As the girls slowly warm up to the villain, Gru also begins to love the girls as his own daughters and realizes there is more to life than being despicable.

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The big conflict of the film lies in Gru’s struggle to balance his new role as a father and his dream of becoming the world’s baddest baddie.  It’s an original execution of a motif we’ve seen dozens of times before: when love changes the main character’s heart.  Despicable Me is also one of the first full-length, animated films to feature a villain as the protagonist.  The idea was later adapted in Dreamworks’ Megamind and (in my opinion, perfected) in Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph.

So, as the first of its kind, Despicable Me definitely scores points for originality…right?  Well, maybe.  How about we start with The Good – because being positive is good for you.

THE GOOD

The protagonist.  If the movie is called Despicable Me, then what else can you expect from Gru?

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First of all, the design of the character is AWESOME.  If Dr. Evil and Frankenstein had a love child, and Tim Burton picked out the wardrobe…this is what you’d get.  THAT’S what a villain looks like.

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He also somehow looks like Steve Carell…if you’re an Office fan, you’ll definitely recognize a few facial expressions here and there.  Whenever a celebrity voice actor is involved, I always appreciate that kind of detail from the animators.

Speaking of celebrity voice actors – might as well tackle this now because I’ll probably mention it time and time again –  I’m personally not on board with the whole deal.  Ever since Robin Williams voiced the Genie in Aladdin, Hollywood realized that when big names are attached to animated films, they’ll attract more of an audience and make more money (like any other film.)  So, instead of hiring professionals who do voice-over for a living, casting directors started seeking out celebrities and offering them millions of dollars to lend their voices.  Most of the time, these celebrities don’t audition for the roles, they spend a couple of hours behind a microphone reciting the lines in their regular voices, and then they walk away with a disgustingly large paycheck.  Simple as that.

Now, imagine you’re a talented but no-name voice actor who has about a hundred distinct, creative voices in your pocket.  You’re more than willing to audition AND you’ll work for a fraction of the celebrity salary.  You’ve also dedicated your whole life to honing your voice-acting craft…you don’t have the luxury of stepping down from Beverly Hills to “dabble in animation” – because this is your PROFESSION.  Sucks, right?  And, as long as it’s making money, it’s a trend that’s going to last forever.

Ok, back to Despicable Me.  My research tells me that, like most other celebrity voice actors, Steve Carell did not audition for Gru.  BUT…I actually think he did a great job.  And, after that rant, you’re probably thinking…

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Well, what bothers me most about celebrity voice-acting is that the celebrities typically “act” as themselves.  Like Cameron Diaz in Shrek – remember, she was the voice of Princess Fiona?  And, based on her performance, I guess we’re expected to believe that fairytale princesses sound like…Cameron Diaz?

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Steve Carell, on the other hand, obviously put some thought into his performance.  As Gru, his voice is nearly unrecognizable, and he plays with the stereotype of super-villains having distinct, memorable voices, as well as foreign accents.  Perhaps as an homage to James Bond villains, Carell gives Gru a strong but ambiguous eastern European accent.  Is it Russian, is it German, is it Transylvanian? You never find out, and that’s half the fun of it.  It’s a voice no one has ever heard before, and I give Steve Carell credit for his creativity.  Also, props for Gru’s hilariously awkward delivery of American slang.

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As for Gru himself…the guy is actually TERRIBLE.  I gotta hand it to the writers – they really delivered on the despicable.  Thus, I noticed one of the first huge differences between this film and Despicable Me 2: the original has a much darker tone.

Like I mentioned before, Despicable Me 2 is a silly, plotless joke-fest that, in my opinion, is this year’s most entertaining animated comedy.  But, Despicable Me…it definitely tries to be a much more serious film.  And a comedy at the same time, but we’ll get to that later.

When we meet Gru, he’s reveling in schadenfreude, cutting the line at the coffee shop, driving like a maniac, and threatening to kill his neighbor’s dog.  Kinda sounds like your average New Yorker.  Ok, except for that last one.  The point is, it’s your average “bad guy in a children’s movie” stuff.  But, oh, just wait until the girls enter the picture…

At the orphanage, he fabricates a sob story about having a dead wife and losing the chance to ever have children of his own.  And, after the social worker (she’s another monstrosity) falls for it, Gru takes the three girls to his deathtrap of a home.  Seriously, this guy has every kind of weapon imaginable stuffed in that house, not to mention a hungry, psychotic dog.  In an especially horrific scene, Edith (the middle child) is exploring the living room and traps herself in an iron maiden.  When Gru notices the pool of blood seeping from the contraption, he shrugs and mutters, “I suppose the plan will work with two,” while the other two girls are standing right next to him, of course.  But, Edith is alive, as the villain opens the iron maiden to find her in one piece: “It poked a hole in my juice box,” she deadpans, with a straw still hanging from her mouth.

It’s a funny joke, but it’s a dark joke.  In fact, a good amount of the film’s comedy comes from a dark or sad place, which you could either love or hate.  I personally like it in doses but found myself wishing for more of the zaniness and lightheartedness of the sequel’s humor.

Anyway, more reasons why I love to hate Gru: he makes the girls sleep in bomb shells, he tells the littlest one that bed bugs and monsters are hiding in her closet, AND, after he successfully steals the shrink ray with their help, he fantasizes about abandoning them at an amusement park.  Good god, I’ve never wanted to call child services on a fictional character so badly!

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Ok, never mind.

Anyway, Gru is so despicable that he almost comes off as unlikeable.  And, for some people, maybe he is, despite his eventual change of heart.  But I find him “likeably evil,” in part because of various flashbacks throughout the film, which give us a glimpse of Gru’s tragic childhood.  We learn that, despite his genius, Gru was constantly put down and ignored by his horrible mother (who for some reason is voiced by Julie Andrews…?)  And, for me, this device worked wonderfully – I felt sorry for him.  Complicated backstory, complicated accent, complicated feelings for three, little girls who were originally just a means to an end…I think Gru is an enjoyable, fairly well-developed protagonist, and, in my opinion, he’s the best part of the film.

But, who could forget these guys:

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As I said before, a lot of the good, more grown-up humor in Despicable Me has a darker tone.  But, for the kids – and, yeah, for the adults too – Gru’s minions provide some of the best laughs.  Because they’re giddy, little corn puffs with eyes.  They’re adorable and ridiculous, and if you don’t like them, then congratulations on not having a soul…

I personally think they’re really creative (and marketable) characters.  And, true, their comedy bits consist mostly of slapstick and butt jokes, but, for a kid’s movie, I think their presence is definitely necessary.  I mean, considering all the dark stuff in this film, it was smart on the filmmakers’ part to include some nonsense to lighten the mood.  At least, it’s not so much minion filler that it detracts from the plot.

As for the girls…

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They’re very cute.  They’re very sweet.  And the sensitive, cutesy scenes they share with Gru definitely tug on your heartstrings.  But, were three girls really necessary?  Now, we’re getting into The Not-So-Good…

THE NOT-SO-GOOD

I’m sorry, but these girls are kinda forgettable.  After three years, the only one I could actually remember anything about was Agnes, the youngest, and her FLUFFY unicorn.  I think the problem is that, the film spends so much time on Gru, it can’t afford sufficient time for developing each of the girls’ characters.  Thus, the three of their personalities sort of blend in together.  Maybe two or three lines from the middle child, Edith, allude to her personality as a troublemaker.  Maybe two or three moments with Margo, the oldest, indicate that she is the most guarded against Gru.

After seeing this film again, only Agnes stands out from the pack: she’s small, she’s freakin’ adorable, and she loves Gru unconditionally from the moment she lays eyes on him.  Seriously, in spite of all the crap he says and puts the girls through, this little girl is just so excited to finally have a dad, no matter who he is.  She just wants him to hold her hand and read her a bedtime story.  It almost breaks your heart.

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Gru’s relationship with Agnes is probably the most developed, as he definitely interacts with her more than with the other girls.  It almost makes you wonder why the filmmakers didn’t decide to just leave out Edith and Margo.  If the moral of the story remains intact, why not focus that extra time and energy on developing Gru and Agnes’ connection even further?  In the end, it works out fine, I guess…I suppose if Despicable Me was about a big, tough guy becoming friends with just one little girl, it’d be a bit too easy.  After all, we don’t want to copy TOO much from Monsters Inc.

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THE BAD

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This character hurt me.  But really, look at him: are you a super-villain or Bill Gates?!?!

First of all, I understand that an antagonist’s presence is somewhat necessary in this movie.  Gru obviously needs a drive for his villainous endeavors (so it can conflict with his relationship with the girls), and Vector is apparently the inspiration for his competitive, ultra-ambitious edge.  But, while Gru is egotistical and menacing, Vector is childish and annoying.  And NOT FUNNY.

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Jason Segel!  And I’m sure he was directed to voice the character as some nerdy guy who’s desperate to be cool, thus providing more comic relief for the film. But, for me, all of his jokes fell flat…and, on top of that, I couldn’t understand why Gru even considered him a threat in the first place.  Again, look at him.

This character also has a terribly uninteresting backstory.  You find out that his father runs the Bank of Evil, thus funding all of his heists with ease…but, really, who cares.  Gru doesn’t even find out about it…it’s not even a big reveal.  Therefore, why should I care?

FINAL THOUGHTS

One more issue I have with Despicable Me lies in some disjointed pacing of the plot.  In the course of about a minute, Gru goes from planning to abandon the girls at an amusement park to returning home with them, with cotton candy and carnival prizes in his arms.  To me, it just seemed like a big change in a short amount of time, as he’s just starting to warm up to the girls.  Overall, it would’ve been nice to see a little more development of Gru’s relationship with his new daughters…I guess that time had to go to screen time for VECTOR.  Ugh.

In general though, there’s nothing terribly bad about this film, at least for children.  As long as they know it’s a tad bit darker than your average Disney movie.  And, as much as I’ve made nitpicks about the girls, I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t charmed by some of their scenes with Gru.  When he plays tea party with them, when he reads them the bedtime story, when he makes them pancakes for breakfast…it made me want to call my dad.

The penultimate scene definitely got me a little teary-eyed.  I won’t spoil it for you, and you can decide for yourself if it hits you as hard.  But, the LAST scene…why.

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Yep.  This is how the movie ends.  With a dance break.  Like in a romantic-comedy.

But really, WHY.  The second-to-last scene just sums everything up on such a sweet, poignant note.  To me, ending Despicable Me like this is a desperate attempt to justify it as a good-time comedy…when it’s not!  Well, not really.  It’s trying to be a good-time comedy.  But honestly, the big jokes just aren’t there (SORRY VECTOR).  It’s not a fall-off-your-chair kind of funny movie.  It’s a laugh-uncomfortably-at-the-weird-occurences kind of funny movie.  And, maybe the filmmakers realized this and decided to fix that for the sequel – and, if so, mission accomplished!  But…no…

Overall, I’d say if you haven’t seen the film yet, it’s worth a look.  It’s a strange journey through a creative, cartoonish world of gadgets and super-villains and minions speaking in gibberish.  And, while it is nowhere near a perfect movie, Despicable Me definitely has its share of heartwarming moments.

3.5/5

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6 thoughts on “Film Review: Despicable Me (2010)

  1. I know you mentioned noticing that Monsters University was out at the same time as Despicable Me 2, but… did you see it?! I actually thought it was really funny, and–hopefully this does not incite your rage–better than the first one. But maybe that’s because Monsters Inc. was never my favorite Pixar film (I’m a Nemo gal through and through).

    ANYWAY you should review Bob’s Burgers. It’s my current favorite comedy aaand season 4 premieres on Sunday! Sidenote: my halloween costume may or may not be either Tina or Louise. Haven’t totally made up my mind yet. 🙂

    • I did see Monsters University! It was definitely funny, but the original has such a special place in my heart. Nemo’s my favorite Pixar movie too 🙂

      And I’ve heard good things about Bob’s Burgers. I don’t follow the show so I probably won’t be a good critic for the season 4 premiere. Any good episode for a beginner?

      • Well, I’d point you towards the pilot episode–just because I think it’s important to see where the show began. Then… I’ll recommend a couple from season 3: Topsy, Boys 4 Now, and Broadcast Wagstaff School News. Of course, there are many funny moments throughout the show. If you do end up checking it out, I hope you like it!

  2. Really nice review! Love the detail that you have gone into and you brought up some perspectives on both Despicable Me films (both of which I enjoy) that are really interesting. Agreed that it is a pity that so many talented voice actors are not hired because a film would rather use a celebrity name – it’s the same in theatre right now as well.

  3. Pingback: Nominate Your Favorite Celebrity “Voice Actors” | animate this

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