Friday, July 9, 2010

Despicable Me: Deliciously evil

Despicable Me (2010) • View trailer for Despicable Me
4.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.9.10
Buy DVD: Despicable Me (Single-Disc Edition)

Watch out, Pixar; there's a new kid in town. 

Despicable Me, producer Chris Meledandri's debut under his fledgling Illumination Entertainment banner, is a hilarious romp that fires on all the cylinders essential for an animated feature: solid premise, witty script, excellent voice talent and  best of all  the split-second directorial timing of the best Warner Bros. cartoon shorts. 

On top of which, this film is laden with so much background business that you'll need to see it two or three times, just to catch all the jokes and sight gags crammed in by directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin, and scripters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio (working from a story by Sergio Pablos). 
After bringing three little orphan girls into his home -- from left, Agnes,
Margo and Edith -- Gru warns them not to touch anything. Naturally,
the kids ignore this edict, and the feisty Edith is the first to find one of
Gru's many deadly ray guns. Gru is about to discover that life with
small children is harder to control than nefarious plots to steal the
Earth's moon.

Meledandri isn't new to the industry; he also served as producer for the Ice Age franchise, along with 2005's Robots and 2008's Horton Hears a Who. He appreciates the need to pay equal attention to all the ingredients of an animated feature, and shares Pixar's understanding that everything begins with story, story, story

The results speak for themselves. Despicable Me is an impressively delightful charmer that captivates from its very first scenes, as central character Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is introduced, strutting like a three-piece-suited Grinch, in all his gleeful villainy. 

Gru's the sort of cad who cheerfully drives a rocket-fueled, tank-type vehicle on steroids, carbon footprint be damned, and scrunches other cars while parallel parking. He'll make a balloon animal to cheer up a small child upset over having dropped an ice cream cone, merely for the pleasure of popping it. 

And Gru's solution to a long line at the local coffee bar will be the envy of caffeine addicts around the world. 

All these merry pranks, orchestrated and timed perfectly to a terrific Pharrell Williams song aptly titled "Despicable Me," unfold much like the early contests of derring-do in 1965's The Great Race, or Christopher Reeve's night of Metropolis rescues in 1978's Superman. It's a great method of telling us all we need to know about a character. 

But that's not all: Once we enter Gru's deceptively ordinary home, nestled in quaint suburbia, the drollery keeps on coming. Gru belongs to a special class of villain: one who steals ever-grander objects solely for the sport ... and to then stuff the booty in his home, which includes a super-super-secret lab buried way below ground. Keep an eye out for various objets d'art throughout Gru's home, as this film proceeds: each more of a chuckle than the last. 

All villains need minions, of course, and Gru has an army: little yellow guys with bulbous heads  sometimes one eye, sometimes two  that speak a not-entirely-nonsense gibberish and look for all the world like old TV tubes with hair. 

A minion pops up as part of the Illumination Entertainment logo, and  mark my words  is destined to become as iconic to this new company as the Luxo Jr. lamp is for Pixar. 

Frankly, the minions would steal this picture, if all the other characters weren't even more captivating. To the extent that you can  and it'll be hard  try to pay attention to what the minions do in the background. 

Gru has a giddily successful life, although we slowly realize that some of his previous exploits leave a bit to be desired. He stole the Statue of Liberty, for example ... but only the small replica in Las Vegas, rather than the real one. Other acquisitions are similarly deflating, prompting little more than a snilch of disgust from Gru's mother (voiced by Julie Andrews). 

Ah, but Gru has ambitious plans. His next plot is a stroke of can't-be-topped genius: the theft of Earth's moon. 

A few details need to be worked out, such as financing and the need to develop a shrink ray, so that the moon can be slipped into his pocket. 

Then, calamity: Gru's efforts to obtain said shrink ray are foiled by Vector (Jason Segel), a brash, nerdish upstart in the villainy circle. Vector favors bright orange warm-up suits and guns that fire live piranhas and squids, and he keeps the shrink ray secured within his booby-trapped fortress  the Road Runner's Wile E. Coyote never had it so bad  where none may enter. 

None, Gru discovers one day, except the three little orphan girls he blew off during an earlier encounter, when they knocked on his door and tried to sell him some cookies. It seems that Vector loves cookies, and he therefore grants access to little Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher). 

The girls are sent out each day by strict orphanage matron Miss Hattie (Kristen Wiig), who demands ambitious sales quotas and threatens slackers with a stint in her cardboard "Box of Shame." 

Gru therefore hatches a scheme involving adoption and miniature robots disguised as cookies. He outlines the details to his nefarious accomplice, the wizened Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), who doesn't hear terribly well; that results in a few minor hiccups, such as a batch of boogie robots instead of cookie robots (cue the minions, as they cut a rug to "Boogie Fever"). 

Even so, the plan is foolproof, and absolutely nothing could go wrong. 

Really, it's not as if Gru might develop feelings for these three little girls... 

Meledandri, Renaud and Coffin are utterly shameless, as they skillfully manipulate our feelings while this blithely demented saga unfolds. Life at the orphanage is conveyed through shorthand sight gags, such as a yellow-tape line that no child may cross, while standing in front of Miss Hattie's desk, or a pair of doleful eyes peering out from the aforementioned Box of Shame, as Margo, Edith and Agnes head out for another sales day. 

Little Agnes is the biggest heart-tugger, with her fondness for unicorns and an unconditional willingness to love anybody who even might be a potential father figure. The older and more cynical Margo and Edith are warier, but even they can be caught off guard ... although they're pretty sure that Gru isn't really a dentist, as he has claimed. 

Carell's grandiloquently pretentious delivery of Gru's lines is so far removed from the actor's usual speaking voice that you'd be hard-pressed to recognize him; the accent is cultured European posh by way of Grandpa Munster. Carell's inflections are superbly matched to Gru's expressive features, whether the slow simmer of escalating rage, or the hapless confusion of a guy who's not nearly as immune to the trusting eyes of a little girl, as he might like to believe. 

Most of the minions are "voiced"  if you can call it that  by Coffin, whose speeded-up nonsense patter never quite resembles actual speech, although you'll frequently think it does. The results are sidesplitting, particularly when a couple of minions  I see from the press notes that we spend most of our time with Tim, Bob, Mark, Phil, Stuart, Dave and Jerry  get into some sort of silly argument. 

This becomes particularly funny during the closing credits, which include minion gags obviously designed to capitalize on this film's 3-D effects. The 3-D is well integrated throughout the film, particularly during a carnival sequence and a vertigo-inducing roller coaster ride. I'm also happy to report that Meledandri was careful to avoid the cludgy dimness that results from the application of bad 3-D (I'm looking at you, Last Airbender); this film is never less than day-glo bright. 

Finally, mention must be made of the wonderful score from Pharrell Williams and Heitor Pereira. Williams' original songs are a stitch, and the underscore is as memorably exhilarating as Michael Giacchino's music for Pixar's 'The Incredibles' (an album I play constantly). 

As I said up top: Meledandri knows his stuff. Despicable Me is a captivating romp that'll make you laugh, sigh, choke up and hover at the edge of your seat. 

And I have got to get me a minion...

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