This story about a really nefarious, evil man has a whole lot of heart.
The Megalomaniac Next Door
Despicable Me is a terrific mash-up of genres that spends a lot of time spoofing spy movies while slipping in a genteel message about how everybody has a back story that causes them to behave the way they do.
In this case, the central antagonist is also the protagonist. Gru (Steve Carell, TV’s The Office), is a bleak, pale villain of some sort of Eastern European descent. He prides himself on being the greatest criminal mastermind on the planet. To wit, some of his choice accomplishments include pilfering the Jumbotron from Times Square, the Statue of Liberty (from Las Vegas) and the Eiffel Tower (also from Las Vegas).
Times are tough for everybody, and that includes this evil being who’d like to secure a loan from the Bank of Evil (formerly known as Lehman Brothers, it is wryly noted). But the bank has decided to back a younger talent named Vector (Jason Segel, TV’s How I Met Your Mother), a super nerd who’s reinvented himself as a super villain. Vector recently displayed a tremendous amount of cunning by stealing the Great Pyramid from Giza, replacing it with a giant inflatable version without anybody noticing. The real pyramid now sits in Vector’s (expansive) backyard, painted to match the sky, complete with clouds, so it can blend in unnoticed.
With the world on alert to protect all other national treasures, Gru decides it’s time to finally hatch his most diabolical plot yet: he’s going to reach out to the heavens and steal the moon.
Despicable Me is for anybody who has – even briefly – toyed with the notion of taking over the world. There’s giddy, vicarious fun to be had in watching Gru drive his incredibly ginormous, jet-powered vehicle around town, mercilessly shoving other cars out of the way while he parallel parks. And his home is like the Addams mansion, stubbornly refusing to cave in to suburbia’s idea of good taste.
This guy is evil for sure. When he sees a child upset about ice cream that dropped from his cone, Gru sweetly blows up a balloon, shapes it into an animal, gives it to the kid… then pops it. And he uses a freeze-ray gun on patrons so he can skip to the front of the line at the coffee shop. Dastardly villain indeed!
Gru, who looks like some sort of biology experiment blending the DNA of Pee-Wee Herman with voiceman Carell, should be pitied, though. He had a rough childhood with an extremely hard-to-please mother, voiced by none other than Mary Poppins herself, Julie Andrews.
Gru’s not a one-man shop. He’s got his British mad scientist, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand, Bedtime Stories) and he’s surrounded by hundreds of loyal minions who provide him with almost all the reassurance and validation he needs. The minions look up to him. Well, they have to, since they’re only a couple feet tall at best. Consider them another freakish science experiment gone awry, splicing the genetic structure of a Twinkie with those adorably ugly Raving Rabbids of videogame fame.
Considering Shrek’s thoroughly commercial intentions and domination of toy store shelves, one can only hope the minions invade some of Shrek’s shelf space. Everybody needs some validation. Everybody could use a little minion.
The Heart of the Story
While the spy spoofing serves up plenty of fun, the story has a clear character arc in mind for bad ol’ Gru and the catalyst for Gru’s conversion comes in the form of three orphaned girls.
As fate would have it, their paths cross after a nasty episode of theft and counter-theft involving a shrink ray device. Gru stole it from the North Koreans, Vector stole it from Gru, and the girls sell cookies that are Vector’s Achilles’ heel.
Ergo, those poor, sweet little orphans are the key to Gru stealing the moon! Muwahaha...
Alas, the girls turn out to be the equivalent of kryptonite to Gru’s cold, cold heart and, as the adverts trumpet, this grinch goes from super bad to super dad.
Thanks to the story’s investment in creating its own world with its own set of outlandish rules for Gru, Vector, and the minions to live by, the story actually works really well.
Despicable Me has a vibe similar to The Incredibles and they share a certain amount of satirical sensibilities that transcend simple animated fare and make them appealing to young and old alike.
The satire, the spoofing, and the minions serve up a triple threat of humorous stylings that manages to find the right balance and offer a little something for everybody.
If the satire’s not appealing, do ya like fart jokes? This one has a doozie thanks to a colossal misunderstanding between Gru and Dr. Nefario. Or how about slapstick? The minions offer it in spades.
There’s also a keen attention to detail that warrants repeat viewings. The biohazard symbol serves as the flower petals on a picture hanging by Gru’s front door, Gru’s swiped Blu-ray technology and renamed it Gru-ray, and lord knows what all goes on with the minions in their crowd scenes.