“Is everything in 3D these days, or does it just feel that way?” a woman near me asked her friend yesterday at a screening of Despicable Me. I didn’t agree with Roger Ebert when he wrote in Newsweek that 3D “adds nothing essential to the moviegoing experience,” but I thought he was on to something important. Most of the time, 3D is just a transparently tacky way for Hollywood to extort more cash from the shrinking theatrical audience—and a typically shortsighted one, since cheap tricks and expensive tix will only speed up the inevitable switch to watching movies at home.
But the fault is not in the technology; it’s in how it’s being misused. Now and then, a movie comes along in which 3D is an important part of the experience. Even in these movies it may not add anything essential, to use Ebert’s criterion, but maybe that’s setting the bar a little too high. Pare any movie down to its essentials and you’d lose a lot of little things that play a big part in making it succeed or fail. And done right, as it is in Despicable Me, 3D can be a pretty powerful tool.
Take Coraline and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. 3D helped plunk us right into the middle of their imaginative animated worlds, the added element of unreality somehow making those environments feel more concrete. Both of those films also used 3D to create memorable, sometimes even meaningful effects. When Coraline’s false father’s arms bow out from the screen as if to embrace the whole world, for instance, you feel the unreality of the comfort he’s offering. And the sinisterly huge needle that sewed up a doll in Coraline’s opening credits, its tip sometimes poking out as if to stab us, made a great prologue to a story about evil disguised as motherly love.
3D can jazz up some otherwise disposable movies too, like Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, whose critters sometimes delighted the kids in the audience by doing that shtick of seeming to run right off the screen and into the theater. Several kids at the screening I attended sidled up to the screen during the end credits, drawn to the cheery drawings that seemed to float just in front of it like magnets to a refrigerator. And let’s not forget Avatar, another thoroughly forgettable and derivative story made somewhat interesting by CGI and 3D, which created an imaginary world you could get lost in for a while.
Technology—not just 3D, but CGI in general—is a little too essential to Despicable Me. I kept feeling as if the filmmakers had constructed the story to showcase the technology instead of the other way around: “Hey, let’s have the evil mastermind take the kids to an amusement park so we can do a 3D rollercoaster ride!” But that rollercoaster really is cool, and so are things like the visceral velocity of a rocket that hurtles up past one of the film’s little yellow “minions,” jostling him out of the bubble of anti-gravity-formula-induced bliss he’s floating in. And I loved watching some of those minions vie to see who could get the farthest into the theater during the final credits.
Unfortunately, Despicable Me’s story is almost as formulaic as its visuals are inventive. It has some Austin Powers-type fun with Gru, its misunderstood boy-turned-would-be evil genius. It sets up an entertaining premise—Gru is competing with a younger, more techno-savvy evil genius wannabe for funding from the Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers) to finance his next evil deed—and it has a lot of fun with its settings, from the elaborate vacuum-tube delivery system that gets Gru to his underground lair to the increasing bowed caryatids that support the pillars at the bank, the last of which is squished flat. But almost as soon as Gru adopts three plucky orphan girls, you can hear the air whoosh out of the movie’s narrative tires, since the filmmakers barely tap into the emotions that should be the whole point of setting up a situation like that, flattening it out into a predictable progression of set pieces. If Pixar had made this movie, you’d have been groping for your last soggy Kleenex by the last scene, instead of just tearing up a bit for the first time.
Like Sally Field, Despicable Me never risks enough to win our love, but it makes us really, really like it. And its clever use of 3D is a significant part of its appeal.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.