After a slow start, Universal’s Despicable Me becomes a charming family film. While aspects of the story may seem familiar, its take on those events lead to a genuinely heartwarming, funny, and well animated film.
The story focuses on Gru, a supervillain of little acclaim in a rather corporatized Legion of Doom. Forever discouraged from reaching the stars, he has devised a master plan: hold the Moon for ransom. In the world of Despicable Me, there are no superheroes to combat the forces of evil. Having no protagonists to combat, the villains mostly just steal to fund their research projects. Gru is no exception.
Voiced by Steve Carell, the character speaks in a cadence that recalls Bela Legosi, but a jumbled syntax that would indicate English is not his first language. Gru resembles the classic Max Schreck Nosferatu image with a high neckline and a head that seems to slump away into a powerful torso. While his cut is impressive, Gru is something of a failure. Lately, a new villain called Vector has been making the headlines with daring abductions of world renowned monuments. His latest prize: the Great Pyramid of Giza. With a last chance from the boss of villainy, Gru sets out to obtain the shrink ray that will allow his Lunar heist to succeed.
This is the section of the film that will feel slow to some viewers. The antics are familiar and the plot progression a little bit obvious. Vector learns of Gru’s need for the shrink ray and the two duke it out for control of the item. Vector manages to spirit the device to his headquarters and Gru makes several unsuccessful attempts to scale the walls of his opponent’s lair. It is necessary for these scenes to be here. The animosity between the characters has to be established and even Gru’s penchant for casual villainy has to be set up. This is particularly important for younger viewers who may not know what a supervillain is and what sorts of things he can accomplish. It is just unfortunate the film does not give those familiar with these concepts more to chew on.
Following Gru’s unsuccessful raid, he sees three school-aged girls — Margo, Edith and Agnes — enter Vector’s lair and sell him an order of cookies. The girls had previously tried their pitch to Gru, but he angrily pushed them aside. He learns they are orphans and, seeing a way to get the shrink ray, adopts them.
It is here the film enters its charming phase as Gru and the girls learn to live with each other. Each of the girls is coded with familiar traits. Margo, as the oldest, is guarded and protective of the other girls. While she can be playful with them, she tends to be the no-nonsense grown-up in Gru’s presence; understanding parental duties far better than he does. Edith is a tomboy constantly impressed by Gru’s inventions and stacks of weapons. Agnes is summed up in the following line of dialogue: “It’s so fluffy, I’m gonna die!” The trio brings chaos to Gru’s orderly world. While his gibberish-speaking Minions love them, Gru grows more aggravated. His plan includes returning the girls to the orphanage once his cookie-shaped robots have retrieved the shrink ray.
That plan gets derailed as Gru’s gruff exterior starts to crack from exposure to the girls. After achieving his initial goal, he takes the girls to a sea side fun fair and has a genuinely good time. Like Gru, the film actually forgets about the heist for a good while as the four characters get closer. Yes, there is a montage of traditional parenting experiences skewed by Gru’s awkwardness, but it tends to work. In one key scene, Gru tells the girls a bedtime story from a book they brought with them. Even the coldest heart will be warmed by it. We also learn in this section how little approval Gru received as a child. Played by Julie Andrews, Gru’s mother takes to the girls while still dismissing her son’s less domestic aspirations.
Throughout the film, Gru is aided by an older villain named Dr. Nefario, voiced by Russell Brand. He is less than charmed by the girls and reminds Gru of his obligation to the villain society. His material tends to revolved around his failing elderly form and though he puts the group in jeopardy, he is never portrayed as completely evil. The two are further aided by a legion of Minions. They speak in an unintelligible mumble, but their personality and hi-jinks lead to some of the funnier parts of the film. Early on, a trio dress up as a wife, husband, and baby in order to buy groceries. They never stop playing the parts. This being a computer animated film aimed at families, the Minions star in a dance number. They just about pull it off.
Despicable Me most closely resembles Disney’s Lilo & Stitch. Both films feature a character that is initially presented as a bad guy, but comes to appreciate a larger view of the world thanks to a young girl — or girls in Gru’s case. Both also feature exceptionally animated mid-air finales which underscore the bonds the characters have forged. They also see the creation of off-kilter families that celebrate their nontraditional traits.
Also, they both revel in the concept of “fluffy.”
From beginning to end, the animation is fluid and well-made. The characters have a lot of personality. Despicable Me really does earn its heartwarming charm. While occasionally obvious, the film always finds a curious or interesting twist to the family bonding portion of the film, which is really its core. Gru’s journey to hero and father is one that anyone over a certain age can sympathize with and enjoy, while for younger viewers, the film features plenty of silliness and adventure.