Carell, Heart Save 'Despicable Me'
Mary Pols, Special to MSN Movies
The hardly revelatory but quite cute new animated children's movie "Despicable Me" features a protagonist of the Grinch variety: that is, content in his nastiness and, if anything, only interested in expanding on it. When we first meet professional villain Gru (voiced as a vaguely European man by Steve Carell), he stops in the street to assist a small boy who is vainly attempting to blow up a balloon. Gru blows it up, twists it into a fun animal shape, hands it back to the child and then pops it in his face. Shortly after this, he sets to work on a plot to steal the moon, a feat he hopes will finally cement his reputation for villainy -- a dubious reputation, based on his previous career highs of stealing the Las Vegas replicas of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower.
Like the Grinch, Gru is a misanthrope, but unlike the Grinch, who found the Whos down in Whoville so tedious and cloying he just had to steal their Christmas, Gru has no specific issue with humanity. He and his hundreds of yellow-clad minions (who move and act a lot like the aliens in "Toy Story") are not fighting a superhero; in fact superheroes don't seem to exist in the world created by co-directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud. No one is around to save the day. There are only other bad guys, most notably Vector (Jason Segel), who vaults into the panoply of supervillains by pulling off the theft of one of the Great Pyramids. We side with Gru against this new rival partly because he's the obvious underdog and partly because Vector is such a snotty jerk (he bears an uncanny resemblance to Christopher Mintz-Plasse's character in "Kick-Ass").
In contrast, Gru is more likely to remind you, in bearing and protruding brow, of Anton Ego, the unctuous food critic in "Ratatouille" (if not forgivable, such borrowing seems inevitable: In this day and age, every animated movie with any ambition is likely to be inspired by Pixar). His pointy nose and goofy accent, however, are pure Carell. So is his bumbling, his awkwardness, which is why we're doubtful Gru is much of a real villain. Who can dislike the dork from "The Office"?
Ostensibly, what Gru seeks is fame. Infamous, famous, they're all the same in 2010, right? Just ask the dark-haired big-butt girls or the latest creepy "Bachelor." (Gru is less interested in the fortune aspect than that lot, and in one scene, we see him begging for a loan from the Bank of the Devil -- labeled as "Formerly Lehman Brothers," giving the grown-ups a knowing laugh -- to fund his enterprise.) Even if you're enjoying Carell's Gru, it seems fair to pause at this juncture, scratch your head and say, what's our motivation? We're used to children's movies asking us to take unexpected positions, like rooting really hard for a lame old toy like Mr. Potato Head, but for the first 20 or so discomforting minutes of "Despicable Me," it seems we, and our children, are being directed to get behind an enterprise that's just a little too modern and cynical. Not to mention pointless. What would one do with the moon? In Eric Carle's delightful picture book, "Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me," a girl wants it as a plaything, but Gru isn't the playful sort.
But then "Despicable Me" evolves into All About My Withholding Mother (Julie Andrews), and things become clearer. In flashbacks we learn that Madame Gru pooh-poohed every cute little notion ever put forward by young Gru, including his ambition to go to the moon. He was disregarded and poorly parented, and this sheer villainy, propelled by insecurity, is the result. What is the antidote to such a thing? For Gru, it's adopting a pack of plucky orphans, named Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher), a dead ringer for Boo in "Monsters, Inc." It's a contrivance intended to get Gru inside Vector's bunker, but we're happy. Not only are we introduced to the entertainingly un-PC mistress of the orphanage, Miss Hattie (Kristen Wiig), who has a voice like a spoiled egg cream, but the girls themselves are a charming trio. "When we were adopted by a bald guy, I thought this would be more like 'Annie,'" says Edith, discouraged by the suits of armor littered around Gru's mansion. Of course, as soon as they come into the picture, we know Gru is headed down the inevitable path to heart expansion, with the audience right behind him. The movie finishes strong, managing to be sweet without being saccharine. It's no "Toy Story 3," but "Despicable Me" is a solid alternative.
Mary Pols is a Bay Area-based journalist. She reviews movies for Time.com and was for many years a film critic for the San Jose Mercury News, Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times. She is also the author of a memoir, "Accidentally on Purpose," published in 2008 by Ecco/Harper Collins. When she's inspired, usually by something weird, she blogs about it at www.maryfpols.com.