Thursday, July 18, 2013

Despicable Me

Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud’s out-of-nowhere hit starts with some horribly blocky animation and a handful of brilliant concepts. The horribly blocky animation depicts a vulgar American family on holiday in Egypt, the prototypically overweight scion of which accidentally discovers that the Great Pyramid of Giza is an inflatable replicable. The original has been stolen. The thief, who seems to have got clean away with it, is hailed in the media as a master criminal.

Leaving aside such questions as how the holy hell do you fence a pyramid? and where do you find a warehouse big enough to stow the thing while you puzzle over question one?, Coffin and Renaud (who should more like a firm of undertakers than purveyors of children’s entertainment) whisk us off to the suburbs of Anywhere, USA, and deal out – in quick succession – their handful of brilliant concepts.

We’re quickly introduced to the beak-nosed and European-accented Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), something of a master criminal himself. And boy is he cheesed off that someone else is getting the criminal genius kudos. He quickly hatches a plan – with the assistance of his sidekick, wheelchair bound inventor Dr Nefario (Russell Brand), and a troupe of yellow-skinned, helium-voiced, nonsense-jabbering minions – to steal the moon. This scheme, to be fair, makes a lot more sense than nicking a pyramid since the potentially catastrophic meteorological consequences make the moon an asset worthy of a high ransom demand.

Thus, the movie’s great concepts:

1) Gru, never mind his Bond villain stylee megalomania, has to go the bank like any other poor shmuck to beg for a loan in order to finance the operation.

2) Gru, never mind his indeterminate accent and decidedly un-American attitudes towards, well, everything, lives quietly in rickety old house on a street full of neatly trimmed gardens and picket fences and none of his squeaky clean neighbours even seem to notice that he has a freakin’ rocket powered car parked on the driveway. (Whether intended or not, it sets up an unspoken incongruity that the movie quietly trades on right till the closing credits.)

3) The minions.

I’m over 300 words into this review and I’ve been putting it off till now, but the minions are the reason ‘Despicable Me’ was a stupidly enormous hit, and the minions are the reason that ‘Despicable Me 2’ (of which more in a couple of days) was made at all, let alone ruled the box office since the second it opened and trampled ‘The Lone Ranger’ into the dust. Sorry, Steve Carell – entertaining vocal work, dude, but they could make ‘Despicable Me 3’ without Gru and just have the minions running around laughing at kiddie-friendly double entrendres for an hour and a half and it would net $100million in its opening weekend. Sorry, Gore Verbinski, Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer, but it’s hi-ho yellow as far as ticket sales are concerned.

Swinging back to the plot synopsis, the president of the Bank of Evil (check out the Corinthian columns leading up to the reception desk: a better visual comment on what banks do to people I have yet to see in a movie, animated or otherwise) reviews Gru’s borrowing-to-repayment history and bawls him out. With the scheme predicated upon the use of a “shrink” gun to render the moon transportable, the president gives Gru an ultimatum: acquire said technology, after which the loan request will be reconsidered.

Gru happily steals said item from a Eurasian military installation (I’m guessing North Korea, but this is a kid’s film and Sarcophagus and Renaud wisely keep the politics foggy) only to have it heisted from him by cocky up-and-coming young villain Vector (Jason Segel). Incensed, he plots to steal it back.

So far, so good. If Donald E Westlake’s Dortmunder had hung out with Ernest Stavro Blofeld and they’d watched the moon-in-the-puddle sequence from ‘Hobson’s Choice’ on replay while they dropped so much acid that they ended up hallucinating a room full of giggling yellow shortarses, ‘Despicable Me’ – up to this point – is probably what you’d get. Then Gru observes that the only outsiders Vector allows into his heavily armoured fortress are three orphan girls selling cookies. Gru instructs Nefario to build a group of cookie robots and sets about charming the hard-bitten matron of the orphanage, Miss Hattie (Kirsten Wiig), into allowing him to adopt the trio in question: wise-beyond-her-years Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), hipster-in-waiting Edith (Dana Gaier) and wide-eyed Agnes (Elsie Fisher).

What follows is toe-stubbingly predictable: grumpy Gru gradually bonds with the sisters to the point where he questions his lifestyle and becomes a better person. ‘Despicable Me’ could easily have not just dropped the ball but scored a classic own goal with it. And to be honest, the script never really shakes itself free of where the narrative arc forces itself towards.

Mercifully, Cremation and Renaud retain Gru’s non-paternal persona for longer than most kids’ films would have: the children’s initial living quarters consist of a patch of kitchen floor, three bowls and correspondence signs reading “food”, “water” and “pee pee and poo poo”; and Gru’s first attempts at putting his charges to bed yields my favourite exchange in the movie: “But I can’t sleep without a bedtime story” / “Then it is going to be very long night for you.” Nor does Gru fully abandon his klepto-lunar plans, even if – in the end – it’s Nefario who gives him the push when he hesitates.

Mercifully, too, the kids (with the exception of Agnes, who seems to be modelled on Boo from ‘Monsters, Inc’) avoid the usual pitfalls of cutesiness. Margo’s continual needling against Gru’s patriarchal parade of rules and regulations suggests the girl’s one step away from joining the Occupy movement, while Edith’s face-twisting scowl is something many a parent will recognise.

An effective contrast with Gru’s difficulty in engaging with the girls is the lifelong dismissive behaviour of his mother (Julie Andrews), revealed in a series of flashbacks. So many of cinema’s super-villains are motivated by arrogance, greed, revenge or lust for power. Gru just wants his mum to be proud of him.

Finally, though, ‘Despicable Me’ works because it’s breezily-paced, irreverent and always funny. Sad to say – I remember only a few years ago when a U- or PG-rated animation was virtually a guarantee of imaginative stories, glorious visuals and plenty of laughs – but of late there have been far too many animated films that have either coasted a moderately-fun-but-kind-of-pointless aesthetic (‘Wreck-It Ralph’) or been no fun whatsoever (‘Epic’). ‘Despicable Me’ – and its sequel, up next for review – buck the trend and deliver comedy, charm and entertainment in spades.

No comments: