Saturday, July 10, 2010

Love: Despicable Me

The Disney/Pixar powerhouse has produced quality film after quality film that all have about the same successful formula; a mix of cheesy yet effective sentimentality, accessibility to both grown-ups and kids, unique animation, and plucky underdog heroes. They are movies made at their very core to win hearts and Oscars. But Universal's Despicable Me does something that Disney will never be able to do, and in the process makes something 100 times more effecting, hilarious, and moving.
The story mechanics of Despicable Me are not all that unrecognizable from your typical Pixar fare. Gru (Steve Carell) the super-villain is a bit down on his luck after discovering that another super-villain, Vector (Jason Segel), has stolen the great pyramid at Giza. Not wanting to let his home-made minions down, Gru decides to fly to the moon, shrink it using a shrink ray, and then steal it, ransoming it to the world. Gru seeks out a loan to accomplish this from the Evil Bank (formerly Lehman Brothers according to the sign above it), but is denied when the bank manager (Will Arnett) tells him he's too old, giving a loan instead to his own son, Vector. After another encounter with Vector in which Gru loses his shrink ray, all hope seems lost, until three little girls from the local orphanage arrive on his doorstep selling cookies. Seeing an opportunity to inflitrate Vector's lair, Gru adopts the girls and has them sell cookies to Vector, stealing back the shrink ray, and in the process falling in love with his three new family members.
Going into Despicable Me, it's pretty obvious, as it is in most of the Pixar films, that Gru is going to end up a changed man after adopting the three utterly adorable little girls, just as you know that the old man and little boy scout in Up will end up best friends. But the journey in Despicable Me is much more innovative, interesting, and organic than the relationships that develop between the characters in Pixar movies. We know these characters not because they are a simple archetype, but because Directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaurd have shown them to us and allowed them to take over, so much so, that it's easy to forget you're watching an animated film. The movie never holds back, showing Gru's disappointing childhood with full on, real life emotion. It's also questionable throughout nearly the whole film whether or not he's going to kill these children or love them, the transition from one to the other subtle and realistic, his more evil characteristics never numbed so that by the end he still feels like the same person, just a lot happier and with three extra little evil super-villains along for the ride. Just like Gru, the three little girls possess a similar demented quality that only makes their sweetness all the more interesting and engaging. And yet it does hold back, when it comes to Vector in particular. His is the most ridiculous character, the one most directed towards kids, the one you expect the crude humor to come from. But Coffin and Renaurd, along with the voice work of Segel, never let him fall into that territory, keeping him funny, but not annoying.
Segel's isn't the only voice work to be appreciated. The voices are also totally pitch perfect, with an all star cast filled with the more unique and depraved comics out there today including Russel Brand as Gru's old side-kick Doctor Nefario (nearly unrecognizable, yet so perfect), Kristen Wiig as Ms. Hattie the head of the orphanage, Will Arnett as the pompous banker, and even my fav Julie Andrews as Gru's mother. Steve Carell is the one that steals the show here, giving Gru a vague Russian accent that recalls the Cold War, showing just how well certain actors are capable of showcasing emotion through their voice while others can't. It's the type of cast Monsters vs. Aliens wished they had.
The film is a mix of the twisted, sweet, and sentimental, all three so expertly entwined they're impossible to pull apart. I love Tim Burton films but find a lot of consistent problems with them. Watching Despicable Me is like watching a Burton film that finally got everything right, that captures the emotion of real life without feeling distant or sappy, that is stunningly beautiful and interesting to look at, and is hilarious in a dark yet intellectual way. It walks a fine line that's just barely on the mainstream, and comes off as far more different and unique than the usual animated cookie cutter, the hilarity off beat and strange in the most delicious of ways. One of my favorite lines was when Gru, dressed as a dentist from anyone's worst nightmares, goes to the orphanage to pick up the girls. There he tells the fat Southern woman that runs it that his "heart is like tooth with a cavity that can only be filled with children." My other is when the youngest, unicorn obsessed little girl named Agnes sees a large stuffed unicorn at the carnival. Her normally light and sweet voice turns into a menacing growl as she yells and points at it, "He's so fluffy I'm gonna die!"
But in addition to all this character development, hilarity, and heart wrenching sweetness, Despicable Me is awesome to look at. Sometimes it feels like Saul Bass had a part in the design and it's a 60's update, others times it feels entirely modern. It's not necessarily pretty in the typical cinematic way I usually enjoy: it's just all in the details. Gru's house is outfitted with an array of nice touches, one being the stuffed head of a lion in his entry way that holds a stuffed dog it's mouth, who holds a stuffed kitten, who holds a stuffed mouse. The girls sleep in beds made from ancient WWI or WWII bombs, which Gru assures them, are too old to explode but warns "you better not toss and turn too much." Gru's house is a dark two story that stands higher and more menacing around the other cookie cutter houses, while Vector's lair is a giant white fortress surrounded by suburbia. The world that the film creates is fully realized and developed, unlike so many of the Pixar films that I enjoy, but that don't necessarily bother to fill in the backgrounds with subtle touches.

Despicable Me is unique, an animated movie that is neither made for adults or kids, or one audience over another, but instead stands by itself, as is, that tells its story not from under the burden of formula, genre, or marketing. Eat your heart out Pixar, and if not, I'm sure Gru can have that arranged.

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