A film review by Craig J. Koban July 15, 2010


2010, PG, 95 mins.


With the voices of:

Gru: Steve Carell / Vector: Jason Segel / Dr. Nefario: Russell Brand / Gru's: Mom Julie Andrews / Mr. Perkins: Will Arnett / Miss Hattie: Kristen Wiig / Margo: Miranda Cosgrove

Directed by Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin / Written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, from a story by Sergio Pablos


DESPICABLE ME, a new computer animated film from Universal Films, has a character that’s one pure bred baddie.  Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is evil.  Make that very evil.  Like many terribly evil villains that do evil things, Gru is absolutely convinced that the social atrocities that he commits are not evil.  I would even go as far as to say that he likes, nah, loves being a despicable man on a mission for global domination and world spanning treachery. 

Just consider, if you will: Gru drives a mammoth, steel plated auto that looks like a cross between a double-decker bus and an armadillo that spouts out black, putrid toxic fumes out of its multiple tail pipes, which, I am sure, makes all environmentalists cringe.  When he parallel parks it he is sure to slam every car in its path out of the way.  He enjoys his morning coffee, but he despises line-ups, so he takes out a freeze gun and, yup, freezes everybody waiting ahead of him so that he can easily bud in towards the front.  Even though he shows a lack of humanity for freezing helpless patrons, he nonetheless leaves his spare change in the leave-a-penny-take-a-penny jar.  He is a better tipper than he is a role model to children, that’s for sure.  He likes to make small animals out of balloons and just after he hands it to excited little tykes, he stabs them with a pen and deflates them, much to their horror.   

This guy is evil. 

Gru lives in a decidedly normal suburb, but his humble abode is a dark, dreary, and foreboding home that seems right out of The Adams Family, complete with dead yellow grass and a roof that seems to attract an unhealthy number of crows.  In his front hallway resides a prized lion bust…biting another smaller, helpless animal that, in turn, is biting another smaller, helpless animal.  Underneath his main level lurks a vast and extraordinarily large basement that is home to his mad scientist lair, which is completely looked after by thousands of yellow, pint-sized minions that gleefully follow their leader into any amoral abyss.  His second in command is the very appropriately named Dr. Nafario (Russell Brand), who assists his master with every scientific pursuit.  Gru even has a trophy collection of his wrongful exploits: he has the actual NBC jumbotron from Times Square that he stole as well as the Eiffel Tower and the Stature of Liberty…granted…the latter two are just smaller versions that he stole from a gift shop, which even seems more petty and contemptible.   

Yet, despite his willingness to be the mother of all deliriously wicked fiends, Gru perhaps has some valid reasons as to why he is evil.  His cantankerous mother, all throughout his life, never paid any attention to him, and when she did it was often in the form of an insult.  During one flashback the young Gru watches the first moon landing, to which he tells his mother that he wants to be an astronaut.  She crassly retorts that he is too late, because NASA stopped sending animals into space years before.   DESPICABLE ME does offer one modest nugget of truth: even terrible men were once good at some point in their lives, but turned bad, perhaps because they were not hugged and nurtured more.

Perhaps even worse than Gru’s unsympathetic and uncaring mother is the fact that he has now officially become the number two super villain on Earth, which irks him to no end.  It seems that a much younger, nerdier, but equally resourceful young man named Vector (Jason Segel) has managed to outfox Gru on just about all of his treacherous goals.  Gru really, really wants to…ahem…develop a shrink ray to shrink the moon so that he can possess it.  However, just when Gru manages to get his hands on such that seemingly impossible-to-find device, Vector swoops in, steals it right from his grasps, and then stashes it away at his completely impenetrable lair. 

Vector has one weakness: cookies that local orphans sell door-to door, and Gru – seeing this as a weakness to exploit – hatches a dastardly plan: he will adopt three cute little orphans, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) and then use them to get inside Vector’s lair to get back his sought after shrink ray gun.  Unfortunately, Gru’s adoption of them has had some very problematic side effects: the girls start to cling to him and like him, which sends him into a existentialist funk: how can he continue to be bad and do bad things while raising young girls in the proper path?  

What’s a villain with delusions of grandeur and an impulse to control the world via any means necessary to do? 

DESPICABLE ME is one of those rare animated films that gets a lot of mileage based on the offbeat appeal of its main character.  Steve Carell, a natural funnyman if their ever was one, is a pure delight here as Gru, who looks like an absurd hybrid of Uncle Fester, Doctor Evil, and Danny Devito’s Penguin from BATMAN RETURNS.  His accent is interesting, a rich hint of Hungarian that the actor has self-described as a combination of Ricardo Montalban and Bela Lugosi but, to be fair, sounds an awful lot like a Germanized SHREK.  Nonetheless, Carell's voice talents are well utilized here, as he crafts a crazily hysterical vocal performance out his euphorically duplicitous and unethical antagonist.  He occupies one uproarious sequence when he tries to read the orphan girls a bedtime story called “Three Little Kittens”, which he – after about one page in – hilariously describes as “crap.”  Few voice actors could make such an unnecessarily contemptible critique of children’s prose seem so genuine. 

The film also has many more amusing beats, many of which come from Gru’s hyper-caffeinated little minions, which jabber away in an indiscernible dialect and waddle in and out of the frame like little penguins.  They occupy two very funny sequences: the first occurs when two of them disguise themselves as a mother and father that travel to a local retail store to buy one of the orphans a new stuffed unicorn toy and the other involves one taking a special zero gravity pill that makes him…float.  The only side effect, of course, is that the pill’s effects do not seem to waiver, leaving one poor little henchman drifting away into space for days.  He seems to like it, though. 

DESPICABLE ME – directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud (a former Oscar nominee for Short Animated Film) – is another in a long line of recent 3D entertainments, but I will at least concede that – despite my overall disdain of the format – their film acknowledges its usage of 3D as a tool to throw images right at the screen for just the intended “oooohhhh” and “aaaahhhh” reaction.  DESPICABLE ME rarely tries to hide behind its three dimensional artifice, but rather it harnesses and exploits it.  No more is this better illustrated during a very sly montage during the end credits (don’t leave before they are finished) that manages to both pay homage to and lovingly mock the conventions of the format.  DESPICABLE ME is one of the few films that have a laugh at 3D’s expense, which is kind of refreshing. 

I guess that I just wished that the overall story was equally refreshing.  There is rarely a moment in the narrative that has any level of innovation or creativity.  The underlining themes of the healing power of children over an initially unreformable and mean-spirited cretin do not leave viewers questioning how it will end.  It’s not that the notion of adorable children warming the coldest of hearts isn’t true, but just that it’s been done to death.  In actuality, DESPICABLE ME could have perhaps been better suited if it avoided the sugary-sweet sentimentality of the orphan melodrama altogether and primarily focused on the battle of evil wits between Gru and Vector (that character, incidentally, is not truly memorably voiced by Jason Segel; he’s kind of flat and indistinctive with the part and never makes it his own).   

Trying to marry social satire with an acerbic bite to that of a gushy story about loveable little girls seems both incongruent and more problematic.  DESPICABLE ME tries to be too cute and cuddly too much of the time when it should have been, well, more despicable.  The film’s visual style is clean, well delineated, and boisterous, but it does not hold a candle to recent masterstroke works by Pixar and Dreamworks that revealed in eye-popping detail and painstaking nuance.  Finally, DESPICABLE ME often seems to confuse manic, slapstick energy with creativity; some instances of the film, like a spoof of John Travolta’s legendary dance sequence in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, seems…like…a joke that was funny 25-years ago.  DESPICABLE ME is modestly entertaining, easily digestible, but ultimately forgettable, fun.  It has a commanding Carell at the helm playing a joyously vile cretin and some funny material built around that (oh, Gru goes to the, what else, "Bank of Evil" formerly Lehman Brothers), but the predictability of its story makes it hard to recommend for theatrical consumption, not to mention that seeing it in theatres would involve an extra $3-4 surcharge to view it in 3D.  

Despicable, indeed.

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