By Armond White
Despicable Me poses a crucial summer question: Is it possible to enjoy a movie simply for what it is or does hype determine audience response? This 3-D animated comedy, developed by technicians from France’s Mac Guff Ligne graphic arts company, makes genuinely witty use of 3-D trompe l’oeil: The ladders that stretch out toward you, the objects that seem to land in your lap and the sun glare (a 3-D first!) are not a gimmicky afterthought as in Toy Story 3 or Shrek Forever After. Instead, Despicable Me has a sense of mirth, telling its story in slapstick kinetics—the very thing missing from recent Hollywood animation.
Whereas Pixar has devoted itself to a sappiness which saps misread as deep-feeling (they respond only to crude, obvious corporate manipulation, which has now turned into patriotic fealty), there’s no such intimidation in
Despicable Me. It prizes the individual reflex and idiosyncratic humor through its tale of a bad-tempered inventor named Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) who wants Supermeany credit but has to compete with a mischievous young upstart, Vector (Jason Segel), who has already—incredibly—stolen the Great Pyramid of Giza. (It’s an ingenious image, establishing the film’s unusual style of polished, 1950s moderne like Tati’s Mon Oncle.)
Mac Guff and directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud specialize in mime-like humor. The plot isn’t formulaic but a nearly surreal series of competitive stunts. Gru and Vector—outrage and physics—wage battle in which their temperaments are writ large. They’re like Tom and Jerry or Itchy and Scratchy, but move at anarchic speed and with a wonderful assortment of gadgets. Gru’s big guns get outflanked by Vector’s bigger guns—a dance of anxiety that salutes Mad magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy” comics via contraption vs. contraption.
Such graphic intensity raises Despicable Me above the family movie ghetto/alibi that attaches to every Pixar release and is part of that company’s lucrative ploy. Despicable Me works as adult comedy in the same intelligent sense as Dr. Seuss rhymes. And there’s a Seussian moral lesson in Gru’s change of heart—from courting people’s disdain to rising above his lingering childish sense of abandonment. He goes from desperate-to-be noticed to selfless—maturity learned when he babysits Margo, Agnes and Edith, three little orphans who represent different stages of cloying childhood. That alone is finer wit than anything in all of Toy Story 3.
Anyone who hates this movie can only be a Pixar shill. This is a very welcome rebuttal to Pixar sentimentality. Gru’s legions of yellow minions (they look like chatty little Pac-Men) could well be parodies of the Pixar masses, except even the minions are individualized by their roguish sense of humor. Two of the screenwriters, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, also worked on the underrated satire Bubble Boy, which probably accounts for the sardonic pokes at Pixar sentimentality (an annoying Unicorn song) and topical gags (on The Godfather, even Lehmann Brothers). This witty political commentary (a bank whose marble columns squish Atlas figures) is beyond anything in Toy Story 3, which is designed to keep one politically ignorant and in consumer mode.
Despicable Me’s title teases self-pity. Gru is not unctuous like Wall-E or the old man in Up. He recalls Ebenezer Scrooge or The Grinch (that stole Christmas), skulking and scheming in his black clothes like an Addams Family member crossed with Peter Lorre in M—and Steve Carell voices Gru great. Listen for how he responds to a begging child: “The physical appearance of the pleeze makes no difference.” A non-pandering animated film is rare, which is why Despicable Me is so refreshing—from its music score of Carl Stalling-worthy inventiveness (and cool title song by Pharrell) to Gru’s extraordinary objective to STEAL THE MOON—a knowing homage to Georges Méliès’ pioneering anime that this fine film does not disgrace.
Directed by Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud
Runtime: 95 min.
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