With mega-studios like Pixar and Dreamworks dominating the ever-growing CG animated movie market, it is gratifying to see that smaller companies can still garner a foot hold, and that no matter how much money is thrown at a film, it is the story that will ultimately prove whether or not it is a success. Illumination Entertainment are the (very) new kids on the block with tonight’s feature, Despicable Me, being their first foray into the motion picture business. Although not in direct competition with Dreamworks’ Megamind, the two pictures do deal with similar concepts, that of looking at a story from the ‘evil’ point of view, but with around half the budget of Megamind, and Despicable Me getting around double the box office takings it clearly trounced the much bigger studio’s release, so how did it manage it, we’ll let’s take a sinister look, mwah ha ha.
In looking quite closely at the film I do give away information which may be considered spoilers. Although most of what I mention has already been viewed, freely available, in the trailers, as a courtesy I mention it here - you have been warned.
Gru is an evil genius, who thinks nothing of freezing the queue in the local coffee shop just to get to the front of the line, or gleefully and deliberately crashing into other parked vehicles as he manoeuvres into his parking spot, or presenting an upset child with a balloon sculpture only to burst it with a pin, just to see the look on their face. In his particular field he is at the top of his game, that is, until another evil genius, Vector, steals the Great Pyramid of Giza, which firmly places Gru into second place. Not wanting to be outdone, and with heckling from his mother, Gru sets about unleashing his ultimate plan – to steal the moon, all he needs is the newly developed shrink ray and finance from the Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers) to build his rocket. These opening shots are hugely important in laying the foundations for Gru, his character and how we view him because throughout the film we have to experience his highs and lows and unless we understand his motivations the film will be lost. What we see is a gleeful megalomaniac, but someone that is not spiteful; there is a joy to his ‘evil’, he’s not out to harm, but to be top of the ‘evil’ tree, so to speak. While this evil persona is projected to the outside world, even his neighbour, once his door is closed, things are somewhat different – free from the pressures of being ‘evil’ and without his guard, Gru is a rather soft character, afraid of his dog, unwilling to answer the door to three cute girls trying to sell cookies; his is a fragile world and one that if he is not careful may come crashing down. These character traits endear Gru to us, and this is so important to later events.
The three girls at the door are Edith, Margo and whose ages range from young, to younger to youngest (no age is actually specified but their character design limits the possibilities to eight, five and three – ish). There is a sisterly bond between these three girls as they wander from house to house selling cookies – their banter is one of friendship and companionship – right from their opening scene we can tell these girls look out for one another beyond that of family. It turns out that all three are orphans, living in a orphanage run by a strict governess called Miss Hattie. She rules the place like a prison, complete with solitary confinement (the Box of Shame) and has the girls work slave labour selling these cookies, she always wants more and chastises her charges on a whim. Her character design is a plump middle aged woman, but her demeanour is one of pure spite – she is the evil that Gru wishes he could muster. I liken her to Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter books (not the film) someone that on the outside is sweetness and light, but on the inside is a monster. Once again this trait is so important for setting the scene for later events. As to the girls, they are wonderfully realised and represent all that is good in the world; happiness, joy and companionship – all they really want is a family; someone to share the love they want to give. And once again by setting out these traits the film lays out the scene for events that once unfolded, hit home hard – we are already emotionally involved with all these characters and we’re barely a third into the movie – no matter what happens we are invested and will follow these characters on their journey. Here is the reason why this film works so well, as ludicrous as the ideas presented are we happily go along because we have identified with the characters, which is something that Megamind failed to do.
Crucial to the success of his dastardly plan is the shrink-gun, but as Gru is explaining his proposition to the bank he is informed by the bank manager that it had already been stolen, by none other than his new arch-nemesis, Vector. Thoroughly disheartened, Gru has now to think of a plan to re-steal the gun before he can effect his plot. After several abortive attempts at breaching Vectors fortress, Gru spots the three girls selling cookies, and a light bulb goes off in his head. (Can you see where this is heading?) Gru then heads to the orphanage and adopts the three girls, who are overjoyed at the prospect of a father/family, particularly as they are all together. Even knowing that Gru’s house is the exact one that he pretended he was an answering machine in, does not dissuade them. Together the girls have a strange, almost hypnotic affect on Gru, they are not frightened and have an infectious enthusiasm that even his most abortive attempts at staying cannot dampen – no bed time story, no night-time kiss, food and toilet areas set out like a dog’s place in the kitchen – and you just know this is going to end well. Securing the bank’s financing on production of the shrink-gun gives Gru the impetus he needs to succeed, with his minions (hundreds of bean shaped oddities that do his bidding) and the inventive Dr Nefarious (the ‘evil’ scientist that produces all the devices needed for any plan/situation) creating cookie robots and the girls as unwitting accomplices everything seems to be going according to plan. That is until the drive home after the heist. The girls, with typical enthusiasm, and Gru’s second ‘light bulb’ to abandon them, decide to head to an amusement park, but due to their age and size, Gru has to accompany them on everything they do. This is a real turning point in their relationship and particularly well realised in the ping pong ball shooting game – desperate to win a unicorn toy, and the smug (evil) stall owner cheating so that no one ever wins, Gru seeing the disappointment on the girls faces and understanding the cheat, takes his own turn, with his own weapon and from this point on, Gru is sold. Cue his returning home face-painted and with toys galore with the happy cries of the girls, and for the first time he is happy too – it is only facing off with Dr Nefarious that pulls him back to earth and the continuation of the moon stealing plot.
We have now spent a good deal of time with Gru and the girls, they have become as close to each other as we have become close to their characters, so when the inevitable happens, Gru’s obvious and heartfelt breakdown hits us the same. In fact, there are many such moments of genuine feeling throughout the film, you know the kind of feeling that is normally only associated with a Pixar release (Dreamworks still have a way to go before we can mention them in the same sentence). Of particular note is when the bank refuses Gru his finance due to a lack of confidence in him, rather than his plan, and Agnes offers up her meager earnings as collateral, inspiring the minions to do that same, or the reading of the Sleepy Kittens book that is as much an allegory for the film as anything – or the flashback to Gru’s ambition to go to the moon since he was a child, and his desperation to gain some sort of recognition from his ambivalent mother who shows no interest in any of his inventive plans – which goes all the way in informing us of what drives Gru in the first place, why this particular plan was chosen and exactly why he chooses his eventual path – he too is as much an orphan as the three girls, and together they create a loving family unit which is what they all crave. Little wonder Gru will throw everything away to rescue them, as he wants to be the loving parent that he so wanted himself as a child – and with this an emotional core, that plays out with such delight, we are swept along with the ride and the film becomes more than just a comic caper, it becomes great and one that could easily be mistaken for Pixar.
As this was a small budgeted film there was not much negotiation for expensive voice talent, in fact the biggest names are Julie Andrews, Russell Brand and Steve Carrell playing Gru’s mother, Dr Nefarious and Gru himself. Gru’s mother has very little screen time for such an important character, this is not a bad thing, it is very much a case of less is more, and Andrews voices the disinterested mother with relish. Brand, on the other hand, is almost unrecognisable as the good Dr, such is his very odd accent. However, his dead pan delivery works extremely well for a character completely dedicated to his work with unwavering focus on the goal – when he explains his decision about the girls there is a cold emotionless expression, one of detachment, that hits you as hard in the chest as it does Gru. As to Carrell’s interpretation of Gru, well his accent is described as a cross between Ricardo Montalban and Bela Lugosi but to me sounded more like the Count from Sesame Street, and his design is based on the sixties comic character of Grimly Feendish, i.e. small head, no neck, hulking body and spindly legs – and the voice matches this exactly. Carrell is very adept at projecting warmth into his voice, having that knack to be likeable even in the most trying of situations, so when Gru begins to warm to the girls you can hear it; this makes for a clear contrast between his ‘evil’ and his ‘good’. This is never better than the goodnight kiss.
The girls, themselves, are voiced by Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier and Elsie Fisher, and whilst Cosgrove maybe recognised form such TV shows as Lilo & Stitch: The Series and What's New, Scooby-Doo? she is probably best known for rocking out in the 2003 Jack Black vehicle School of Rock and is therefore quite adept at this acting lark so takes the lead as the eldest of the girls, it is newcomers Gaier and Fisher that put in stunning performances, particularly Fisher, whose enthusiasm and warmth as Agnes is utterly compelling. Jason Segel is terrific with his nasal/nerdy interpretation of Vector, that kind of annoying whine that gets under your skin, just like the character needs to. And Kristen Wiig puts in a wonderful turn as the hateful Miss Hattie, playing that sweet, sweet voice with all that menace, she is a real horror. The other significant voices are those of the minions, which, apparently have an actual language (invented for the film), meaning the gibberish they speak actually means something to someone, fitting then that the directors take most of that voice work!
As to the design of the film; it has a very ‘cartoon’ look, the ordinary people, including most of the principle cast are suitably round and cuddly, stylised to appear ‘normal’, while that of Gru, himself, as alluded to above, being the most stylised of all and thus standing out. As to the sets, they are bright and colourful and have a sense of hyper reality – nothing obeys the laws of physics, but then with a story that involves stealing the Great Pyramid and the Moon, you didn’t expect it to did you? The style fits the movie though, it does have a ‘cheap’ feel to the animation, there isn't that depth, nor intricate nature to the designs that some of the bigger studios can render into their frames, but, the first time directing team of Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud still manage to give enough depth and meaning without over complicating the image. Remember though, this is a cheap film, but where it wins out is with the emotional contact and story, flashy visuals would have been just a bonus. If Illumination Entertainment can keep up this kind of involvement with their next project, Hop (due in April 2011), then they will certainly be a force to be reckoned with, Pixar might finally have some competition in the CG animation front, and that can only be a good thing, as it means better films for us all. Despicable Me, highly recommended.
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