Saturday, July 10, 2010

MY DAD, THE SUPERVILLAIN: a review of "Despicable Me"

"DESPICABLE ME" Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

First things first. Pixar has nothing to worry about. For that matter, the Dreamworks Animation Studios have nothing to worry about either.

"Despicable Me," the latest entry in the computer animated movie featuring the all star voice cast sweepstakes, is a cinematic straight line down the middle. It's not bad as it is a plesant enough diversion that does contain good chuckles, a zippy energy and colorful vibrancy. But, it's not necessarily that good either as it does tend to subscribe to a fair share of the post-ironic, too snarky for its own good, pop culture driven, flatulent humor that has unfortunately saturated children's entertainment in recent years. Yet, somehow, this disparate merging of genres, as well as a smattering of plot lines and comic styles, turns out to be a fairly cute enterprise that will definitely keep the young ones hugely entertained.

The voice of Steve Carell (via a pseudo Hungarian accent) stars as Gru, a misanthropic supervillain with a comically nasty mean streak. He smashes cars when parallel parking and immobilizes customers at his favorite coffeehouse with his Freeze Gun, for the sole purpose of skipping ahead in line to retrieve his favorite muffin and morning beverage. Yet, Gru has an additional need to be grumpy as he has fallen on difficult times. It turns out that a mysterious new villain has effectively stolen Gru's evil thunder by also stealing the pyramids. As he continues to plot his revival as the World's Greatest Villain, along with his sidekick Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) and his army of chattering yellow pill shaped Minions, in the secret basement laboratory of his otherwise unassuming dark house, Gru decides upon the object of the most spectacular heist in history: the theft of the moon.

But, there are a few problems. First of all, Gru needs to steal the Shrinking Gun from Vector, his new young nemesis (Jason Segel). But his largest obstacle arrives in the form of three orphaned sisters named Margo, Edith and Agnes (voiced by Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier and Elsie Fisher, respectively), whom Gru adopts for the purpose of covertly infiltrating Vector's lair to then steal the Shrinking Gun. As the three little moppets begin to warm and burrow their charming ways into Gru's cold heart, he arrives at a personal crossroads, where he is confronted by whether his true nature is as a supervillain or even as...gulp...a hero!

Truth be told, "Despicable Me" is a bit of a schizophrenic movie. It is such a jumble that I am surprised that it actually held together at all. What begins as a slightly dark comedy segues into a tender piece starring the orphaned girls and segues again into near Looney Tunes/"Spy Vs. Spy" slapstick then back again to the darker humor rubbing up against the sweetness. It's almost as if the movie is at war with itself as it, along with Gru, tries to figure out exactly what kind of a movie it wants to be. Like a performer desperately trying to keep ten spinning plates afloat and revolving, the film is admittedly a tad sloppy while also keeping a steadily frenetic pace with a somewhat bombastic music score by Pharrell Williams (!) propelling the film along. If anything, 'Despicable Me" is a healthy reminder of not only just how wonderful the original "Shrek" (2001) was but how difficult it is to combine so many levels of humor that successfully. "Despicable Me" does try hard but the level achieved by that first "Shrek" is not reached.

Some of the characters aren't as developed as others making for a certain unbalance that results in a few storytelling short cuts. This is most notable with the great Julie Andrews as Gru's mean Mom. Her vocal talents are considerably wasted as she receives scant screen time yet she serves to present the film's more treacly (i.e. "heartwarming") subject matter as we see snippets of Gru's sad childhood during which he was supremely ignored. That's all well and good to a degree but if you are a filmmaker that is blessed with the amazing vocal talents of Julie Andrews, then use her and give her loads to do!

Aside from Andrews, the majority of the voice cast perform their roles with gusto and the chemistry between Carell and the three girls do contain genuine laughs and warmth, which makes the predictable climax work better than it possibly should.

As with my recent review of the disappointing "The Last Airbender," "Despicable Me" is primarily a children's movie for children and they certainly will not be thinking about the criticisms I pointed out at all, as I would imagine they would only desire a snappy good time with great visuals and lots of laughs. (Although keeping with the film's erratic tone, it carries more than enough self-consciously adult humor and pop culture jokes to keep the grown ups in attendance from spending the entire time in the lobby!)

For all intents and purposes, "Despicable Me," is a good looking movie. While it contains a few sequences as visual standouts (an air battle between Gru and Vector and a wild amusement park roller coaster sequence, in particular), the film has a somewhat flat, day-glo colored look that does not hold the same rapturous and luxurious visual presentation that is now the standard as set by Pixar. But, again, this is my adult taste commenting on something young children don't care a whit about and not every film aimed at children can ultimately turn into a masterpiece.

"Despicable Me" is not perfect and doesn't remotely fit in the same league as this year's "How To Train Your Dragon" and "Toy Story 3," but that's OK. It is a movie that is refreshingly not mean spirited and furthermore, I don't believe that the filmmakers tried to pull one over on the audience or even disrespect them in any way. It felt like an honest try to tell a good story in the most entertaining way possible.

While it was blandly entertaining to me and nothing I ever need see again, the kids I saw it with and the ones around me, enjoyed it very much.

And sometimes, that's decent enough.

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