Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"Despicable Me" Review

Never one to pass up a good cinematic curmudgeon, maybe I was predisposed to enjoy Universal’s “Despicable Me.” I mean, when it comes to off-brand animated entertainment, ass-kicking Pandas and pet Dragons only take me so far—It wasn't until Russian supervillian Gru (Steve Carell) put his adopted children to bed in the hollowed-out casings of “probably” inactive bombshells that I finally felt like the target audience.

Ever since studios began better emulating Pixar’s secret sauce, they’ve met with varying degrees of success in combining raw, gooey emotion with their signature lighthearted recipes. “Despicable Me” grapples with it, and though it may be one of the most consistent examples yet, it’s still about as nuanced a dish as macaroni and cheese — which, fortunately for me, I’ve never outgrown.

However, of the two conflicting senses of humor at play, there is one I absolutely have outgrown. Rarely has a family film so distinctly set aside its kids’ humor from its more mature fare; In “Despicable Me,” it’s a difference personified. Gru’s subterranean lair is crawling with his “minions,” little, yellow jellybean-like creatures who make butt jokes and slap each other around. They’re cute purely for the sake of being cute (in effect, a sort of artificial cuteness) and anytime they’re on screen, the comparable intellect of the rest of the film is suffocated by indecipherable high-pitched chatter and broad gags that make vaudeville look like the Divine Comedy.

The good news is that the minions are never on screen for particularly long, and there are a few laughs to be had at their expense when they become the unfortunate casualties of Gru’s experiments. Conversely, most of film’s jokes have an avant-garde sensibility that jived better with me; Gru must acquire a loan from the “Bank of Evil” in order to fund his diabolical scheme to shrink and steal the moon. Coupled with a “Spy vs. Spy”-esque kinetic goofiness, it still averages out to be a fairly funny film.

No surprise, a lot of upper-echelon voice talent is involved, and I remember being impressed months ago at the wall of names that played after the teaser-trailer. Admittedly, I haven’t been the biggest fan of Carell’s work since he left “The Daily Show” back in 2005, but he doesn’t distract as Gru. He plays well off of a cast eerily similar to that of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall:” Jason Segel as his nemesis, Vector (who is, interestingly, another supervillian—“Despicable Me” doesn’t have a hero); Russell Brand as an elderly inventor by the name of Dr. Nefario; Kristin Wiig as the proprietor of the orphanage from which Gru adopts three young girls in a ploy to infiltrate Vector’s fortress.

But perhaps most interestingly, “Despicable Me” has some of the most easily-missed cameos in the history of animation. Danny McBride plays Gru’s neighbor with a line and a half of dialogue, and Jemaine Clement from HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords” (apparently) voices one of the minions. Other than stacking the deck as an advertising vehicle, it seems pointless to pay such funny people for such inconsequential roles.

But I think their presence signifies, if nothing else, that “Despicable Me” is a project worth being attached to. It may fall back on certain cyclical annoying tendencies, catering occasionally to lowest-common-denominator comedy (the avoidance of which even the best emulation of Pixar hasn’t managed), but the world of the film is comically rich, and no amount of disposable, annoying minions can wreck that — though not from lack of trying. The heart of the story, Gru coming to begrudgingly love his adopted daughters, may not win any prizes for revolutionary storytelling, but it’s well executed and ‘cute’ in a legitimate way.

As something of an amateur curmudgeon myself, please disregard my smile.


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