d. Pierre Coffin + Chris Renaud / 2010 / USA/France / 95 mins
For those of you that read the last page of a book first, this review’s for you. This is not a film I’m going to recommend with any enthusiasm. We seem to have the tendency to describe something as “a good children’s film” rather than simply, a great movie, as if kids aren’t hugely complex, active makers of meaning. Luckily, films such as Princess Mononoke, Toy Story, The Princess Bride and Who Framed Roger Rabbit exist to blow these preconceptions out the water. But are these films primarily aimed at kids, and if they are, surely all that matters is that they’re fantastic by any standard? In recent years, the bar has been raised pretty high for what a “kids'” CGI film is capable of, and few have managed to slump to the depths of Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. Indeed, Despicable Me is a much more competent film, but it still can’t help but be overshadowed by the winning formulae it imitates. There’s a great premise here, an interesting Euro aesthetic and a clear mix of creative talent but overall, a lack of depth stunts its growth.
Few of the film’s elaborate set pieces are going to stick within your mind; the action and design only seem to resonate when a plethora of Q-esque gadgets and weapons are on display. Even this though, alongside its sharp, retro styled edges are a poor imitation of what’s achieved in The Incredibles.
Steve Carrell performs his role as Gru with gusto, but a mixed and muddled accent blurs the edges of his character and makes him little more than a parody of multiple Bond villains rolled into one. Julie Andrews, Russell Brand, Jason Segel and Will Arnett suffer much the same fate; with little to work with, their characters make almost no definable impact on our attentions, or the story itself.
At its heart, Despicable Me is a sweet tale of a misunderstood individual who learns to open up to others and himself through his connection to an adorable group of youngsters. The master criminal’s plot of stealing the moon is appropriately fantastic and heroic, even more so when this particular satellite is used to refer to the affection and acceptance he was never offered by his Mother. On paper, this is a wonderful idea, but Gru’s relationship with his Mother is treated as little more than a touching flashback and is offered no resolution. Likewise, the villains of the piece either receive no necessary confrontation (as is the case with Arnett’s unscrupulous banker) or are simply incompetent and lack any semblance of drama and threat (Segel’s Vector). Even Brand’s almost unrecognisable turn as Dr. Nefario, the assistant who is unhappy that Gru’s moral alignment is shifting, hints at what might have been, but never develops any further and seems a missed opportunity to produce some real sense of meaning and menace.
This is a film where attention is completely dedicated to Gru and his kids. It’s a slightly sentimental approach, that doubtlessly suits the heart warming nature that the story occasionally manages to pull off. It’s simply a shame that so much of the film goes undeveloped, resulting in an undeniably sweet and well-intentioned film that makes the mistake of believing that a tale for children need have none of the dramatic flourishes that makes truly exciting drama. Gru never does quite acknowledge the twisted childhood that promoted his villainous behaviour, and the film assumes for its audience that, when understanding the complexities of youth, ignorance is bliss.