Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud’s Despicable Me is a healthy reminder that no single animation studio has a monopoly on thoughtful and involving animated features. After Pixar became known as the studio for sophisticated cartoons for adults and children of all ages, it took a while for other American studios to catch up. Thankfully, Sony eventually stepped up the quality of their films with the very funny and hyper-kinetic Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and more recently, DreamWorks stepped in with the more well-rounded How to Train Your Dragon. And now with Desicable Me, Universal Pictures has gone from being the Green Party of the U.S. animated world to offering up a legitimate contender for the year’s best and breeziest no-frills studio-produced summer flick. Which is kind of sad but also fine because the dearth of quality blockbusters makes it easier for a little film like Despicable Me to stand out.
Despicable Me is probably closer in tone and style to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs in that it foregrounds its story in the kind of patently unreal alternate universe that only looks right in a cartoon. The film revolves around Gru (Steve Carell), an egomaniacal, low-tier mad scientist who uses a trio of orphans to realize his dreams of stealing and shrinking the moon. The filmmakers ground Gru’s exploits in the realm of Looney Tunes slapstick, where comic timing not only matters, but is the basis for the rhythm of the film. This might seem like an untenable concept for a narrative-driven, feature-length cartoon, but Coffin and Resnaud pull it off for the most part. Much of the film is composed of scenes that are surprisingly considerate in their comedic timing and use of imaginary space. These guys know they have unlimited resources at their disposal and they take full advantage of that fact. Coffin and Renaud’s acute understanding of how to use time and setting in a world unfettered by a defining sense of verisimilitude elevates what might have otherwise been a passable film with an utterly predictable plot an exceptional, self-aware bit of fluff.
Gru is not a human character undergoing extraordinary circumstances. When he sees a child bawling after having dropped his ice cream cone on the pavement, he does not empathize with the boy. Instead, as part of a wordless montage sequence that perfectly establishes who the character is, he pantomimes sympathetically at him, blows him a balloon animal, and then promptly pops it out of sheer spite. Hell is little children for Gru, an egomaniac who toils away on various underachieving schemes with mutant worker drones that look like radioactive Twinkies and his decrepit evil assistant, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), in their underground lab (they don’t steal international landmarks, just miniature replicas of them, and a Jumbotron too). The joke behind the fact that he lives in a suburban setting is that he doesn’t fit in and never could even if he tried. He’s not exactly from around there.
Despicable Me’s plot is similarly grounded in comic-strip realism. Gru needs money for his plan to steal the moon from its orbit, but the Bank of Supervillains (formerly Lehman Brothers, according to one of the film’s better throwaway gags) is only investing in young, unproven villains like Vector (Jason Segel doing a third-rate Jon Lovitz impression). To get his loan, he must steal a shrink ray from Vector, who has already stolen it from Gru after Gru originally stole it from a group of what looks like North Korean scientists (they’re never identified, but their boss looks conspicuously like the Great Leader Kim Jong-Il himself). To get to Vector, Gru must adopt three orphan girls who sell Girl Scout cookies that Vector has a soft spot for. Which is to say nothing of the cookie robots that Gru tasks Dr. Nefario with making to infiltrate and steal back the shrink ray.
The film’s broad beats are written large enough that you can see what’s coming down the pike from a good ways off. It’s predictable as all get out, but like How to Train Your Dragon, that’s inconsequential in light of the fact that its creators realize the formula they’ve chosen to dabble with rather well. 3D technology is put to great use in sequences like a roller coaster scene shot from the first-person POV and a brief tightrope walk later in the film. Both set pieces work as well as they do because they are paced and visually rendered carefully without being so ostentatious in their style that they overwhelm the viewer with their artifice. If Gru’s time bonding with his three girls, who he puts to sleep in deactivated aerial bombs, were more memorable, Despicable Me would be a more durable and all-around better film. As is, it’s a perfect, though unambitious, diversion.