Despicable Me (Universal, PG)

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It’s basically Date Night for kids: big stars (in this case as voice actors), big budget, lots of recycled ideas and a predictable story arc, which leads to a reassuring conclusion.

 

If you go to see Despicable Me, the first animated feature from Illumination Entertainment, be sure to stay for the credits, because that’s where the best animation is on display. Otherwise it’s basically Date Night for kids: big stars (in this case as voice actors), big budget, lots of recycled ideas and a predictable story arc which leads to a reassuring conclusion. Despicable Me is neither wonderful nor terrible: it’s an OK choice if you need something to occupy the kids for 95 minutes—and if Toy Story 3 is sold out. But be forewarned: this is a movie custom-made for product spinoffs, and you’ll probably end up buying a whole lot more than just the admission tickets.

Gru (Steve Carell, using an accent somewhere between French and Russian) aspires to be the greatest villain in the world so he can finally impress his mother (Julie Andrews). He’s been upstaged recently in the villainy department by a young upstart named Vector (Jason Segel) who stole the Great Pyramid of Egypt and replaced it with an inflatable replica. How do you top a stunt like that? Gru, with the help of his assistant Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand in High British mode) and some little yellow guys referred to as his minions, plans to steal the moon.

But first he needs a shrinking ray gun to make the moon small enough to be brought back to earth. Fortunately such a device already exists and he manages to steal it using a claw of the kind you see at low-rent game arcades only to have it whisked away by Vector. His plot to get it back requires the unwitting assistance of three orphan girls (Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, and Elsie Fisher) who sell cookies door to door to earn their keep at Miss Hattie’s Home for Girls (run by Kristen Wiig).

The girls are the real heroes of the story: they’re smart, brave, determined and oh-so adorable, especially Agnes, who is a little too obviously modeled on Boo from Monsters, Inc. They also look out for each other and are the best thing in the film—in fact they have a lot more going for them than the adult female characters in a lot of films I’ve seen recently. Anyway, what do you think will happen: will the girls become villains like Gru or will he get in touch with his feminine side?

This was my first experience with 3-D animation and I have to say that I’m not sure it adds much to this film. As with the last round of 3-D in the 1950s, there’s a lot of sequences which are clearly designed to highlight the technology (objects fired directly into the audience and even an allusion to House of Wax in the credits) but the effects are not as impressive as the directors (Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud) seem to think they are and the efforts to show off the animation frequently interrupt a story which could have been developed much more convincingly.

The film in general suffers from a very shallow depth of field: the frames are divided into distinct and discontinuous planes and generally only one is in focus at a time, a situation which can grow to be quite annoying. The impressive closing credits sequence, in which the minions compete to see who can project themselves furthest out into the audience, avoids this problem because it is set against a plain white background but that would hardly be a reasonable solution for the entire film. The overall look of Despicable Me is also odd because the different elements don’t seem to be inhabiting the same world: the characters look like very smooth claymation but the “sets” look more like a cross between holograms and dioramas in a museum. Of course the technology is relatively young so maybe in a few years those problems will be solved, or maybe it will turn out to be a fad whose main effect was to raise the price of theatre tickets as long as it lasted.

In the mean time, can we please impose a moratorium on pointless dance sequences in animated movies—it’s the last refuge of lazy scriptwriters who have run out of ideas. | Sarah Boslaugh

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