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Despicable Me (2010,USA)

07/10/2011

Directors: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud         Starring: Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russel Brand, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Elsie Fisher

While Pixar may well be the global overlords of family orientated, computer generated, animated features there are other pretenders to the throne. I have covered at some length in other reviews the ever decreasing gap between their next closest rival Dreamworks who are consistently improving their work and closing in on that Pixar magic but there are other studios who, presumably envious of the success, acclaim and (most importantly no doubt) money that Pixar have gained over the years, like to have a stab at the occasional kiddie friendly cartoon. In the case of Despicable Me it’s Universal’s turn to have a pop at the super-villain based story (it was released around the same time as Dreamworks’ case study in super-villainy Megamind). So are Universal a threat to the big two?

Gru is a super villain of no meagre skill although so far most of his schemes have been a little mediocre. When he is upstaged by rival villain Vector’s theft of the Great Pyramid in Egypt he concocts a diabolical plan to steal the moon thus restoring his reputation. The only problem is, the manager of the Bank Of Evil (“formerly Lehmann Brothers” as one of the many heavy handed gags in the story would have it) won’t lend Gru the necessary funds to build a rocket unless he can prove he can pull it off. The only way he can do this is to steal the shrink ray he needs to facilitate his plan and (thanks to a couple of clunky plot devices) the only way he can do this is to adopt three little orphan girls and use them as cover for his plan. Of course, as you might expect, the little girls teach him a thing or two about life and make him question his evil ways.

To cut to the chase (for once), on the strength of this evidence Universal are definitely NOT a threat to Pixar or Dreamworks. They don’t even come close. Despicable Me almost feels like a box checking exercise rather than a labour of animated love. Main character goes on a moral journey – CHECK. Cute little kiddy with silly lines – CHECK. “Funny” sidekicks to get into mayhem – CHECK. Jokes for the grown ups too – CHECK.

The Lehman Brothers joke is a case in point. When Gru decides to go off to see the bank manager I joked to my girlfriend about how banks are evil moments before a secret entrance reveals the Bank Of Evil. Oh look everyone, in case you hadn’t worked it out we are having a dig at Lehman Brothers. It’s about as subtle as a brick and I don’t think particularly necessary when he could have just gone to a bank and any right minded adult in the audience would have made that connection themselves. Instead of allowing the audience to get the joke themselves tehy’ve felt the need to shoehorn that one in, just in case anyone missed it. When they do ease off a little and go for a more subtle approach these kind of jokes work really well, Gru talking to his neighbour about his dog making a mess of his lawn is a fine example, but this doesn’t occur often enough for my tastes.

“But it’s for kids!” I hear you cry. Yes, point conceded, however that Lehman Brothers thing is definitely aimed at grown ups (kids don’t know or care who Lehman Brothers are/were) and as we all know, the true success of this kind of film is to keep the grown ups as engaged as the kids. But seeing as we’re on the subject, what’s here for the little tykes? Well, probably a fair bit. It’s certainly got plenty of antics, mostly thanks to the little yellow minions who work for Gru in his secret lair and his odd mutant dog thing he keeps as a pet. Most of this is fairly bog standard cartoon style stuff which kids will probably lap up but which I was fairly indifferent to.

The three little orphan girls are cute enough I suppose but for all their implied street smarts they don’t seem to twig to Gru’s scheming and when his arch villain status is revealed they don’t seem to care. Fair enough when all they want is a dad I suppose but there’s something about the pace and superficiality of the realtionship between Gru and his new found daughters that doesn’t sit right and is ultimately quite dissatisfying. Compared to the arc in Megamind, where the titular villain/hero seems to undergo a genuine moral, existential transformation Gru seems to just switch from being a villain to not being a villain without any soul searching or insecurity about it. Probably doesn’t matter to the kids I’ll grant you but it bothers the heck out of me.

Animation wise it’s competently made but nothing special. I’m not especially keen on the character design or for that matter the vehicles (although Vector’s flying machine is quite smart). Some of the details and texture effects are quite nice but the overall effect is a little underwhelming. It’s certainly miles behind the sort of thing on show in recent Pixar and Dreamworks pictures. This may be a function of budgetary restraints as much as artistic inclination though.

I think kids would enjoy Despicable Me. I think it would work as a throwaway piece of entertainment, I can’t see them getting attached to any of the characters like they would to say Woody or Buzz in Toy Story but they’ll probably get a kick out of the minions. For adults forced to watch it with them though the appeal is pretty limited. There just aren’t enough laughs for my liking and very little subtlety. I can only take being bludgeoned over the head with obvious gags for so long before I crack I’m afraid and I know some people will probably think it’s unfair to hold a kids film to task over a lack of character depth and an unconvincing arc but if Pixar can do it (and do it so well) then there really is no excuse for Universal’s failure to follow suit.

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