Friday, July 16, 2010

'Despicable' surprisingly heartwarming

“Despicable Me” is a film with too much going on and that under utilizes a voice cast of some of the brightest, sharpest comic actors currently working. That isn't exactly a ringing endorsement, but in spite of a busy, formulaic plot, the film turns out to be immensely charming.

The despicable one of the title is Gru (Steve Carell, with an accent he describes as a cross between Ricardo Montalban and Bela Lugosi), a super villain who has no desire to rule the world, but rather to simply hold the title of the world's greatest villain. He drives around in the least eco-friendly vehicle imaginable, uses a freeze ray to cut the line at Starbucks and will make a kid a balloon animal just to pop it the next minute.

Gru is indeed pretty despicable, but since he's also the lead character he isn't an unlikable monster. Gru has mama issues. His mother (Julie Andrews) sees him as a complete failure and, as we see in flashbacks, has never been impressed with any of his interests or endeavors.

He is also dealing with Vector (Jason Segal, in need of stronger material), a new rival villain, who is the buzz of the world after stealing a pyramid. Vector hides it, in a great gag, by painting it to look like the sky.

Vector has a shrink ray that Gru needs in a theft to top all thefts. He adopts three cookie-selling orphan girls to get into Vector's well-protected lair and steal the ray.

It goes without saying that these kids will warm Gru's heart. One of the girls notes “I thought that when we were adopted by a bald guy it would be more like 'Annie.'” In actuality, that's exactly what “Despicable Me” turns out to most closely resemble, although in this case Daddy Warbucks has an army of yellow pill-shaped minions.

Oh yes, one can't forget the minions. They speak their own chirpy, gibberish language and are essentially a bunch of loyal goofballs that worship Gru like a rock star. Their antics are silly slapstick, but also very funny. In one particularly amusing sequence, three of the diminutive minions pose as a family to go toy shopping.

In early scenes, the film has fun with the rivalry between Gru and Vector. A sequence involving Gru attempting to break into Vector's lair relies on absurdist Looney Tune-style visuals and silent film comic timing. It delivers large laughs.

The film could've continued mining laughs in this “Spy Vs. Spy” manner and could've become darker and stranger, but the heartwarming road that is chosen instead turns out to be surprisingly sweet and undeniably cute.

This is the first film from a new animation company called Illumination Entertainment that, with the introduction of the three girls, is clearly attempting to blend humor and heart the same way Pixar does. The approach here is more obvious and less sophisticated than the high caliber work Pixar puts out, but it is effective. The closing scenes with the girls and the no-longer-grinchy Gru earn their emotional pay offs.

Carell gives a great vocal performance using his Boris Badenov-esque accent to butcher catch phrases like “That's what I am talking about.” He also brings some real emotion to the more
tender moments.

The rest of the voice work is solid, but somewhat disappointing given that talented comic performers like Kristen Wiig (“Saturday Night Live”), Jack McBrayer (“30 Rock”) and Will Arnet (“Arrested Development”) are in throwaway roles. Russell Brand (“Get Him to the Greek”) scores some laughs playing against his wild man persona as Gru's elderly inventor cohort.

Although there are some missed opportunities, the film works. The animation is bright, colorful and lively. The humor is broad, but intelligent. Ultimately, it is the warmth that comes late in the film that makes this a success.

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