Villains, it seems, are the new heroes. If this trend in animated family films didn’t quite begin in 2007 with the twin fractured fairy tales Happily N’Ever After and Shrek the Third, that was still the year that computer-animated villains began to express self-aware dissatisfaction with their second-class status and demand something more.
The next year there was Igor, a horror-movie spoof about a kingdom of mad scientists and a hunchbacked sidekick with creative aspirations of his own. Then, last year, Monsters vs. Aliens turned icons of 1950s’ monster movies — the Fly, the Blob and the Creature from the Black Lagoon as well as the 50-Foot Woman — into a team of superheroes.
Now there’s Despicable Me, a comic-book / 007 spoof on the supervillain archetype: Dr. Evil without Austin Powers. Later this year: Megamind, a superhero satire in which Superman’s origins are recapitulated in two opposing characters, a lantern-jawed hero named Metro Man and his blue-skinned nemesis.
Villain-centricity is a promising approach, but it hasn’t quite hit its stride — until now. Happily N’Ever After and Shrek the Third were lame and uninvolving. Igor, with its Universal horror riffs, wasn’t all bad, just kind of shapeless. Monsters vs. Aliens had energy and style to spare, but all its empathy was for its grrl-power heroine; all the male characters embodied male inadequacy, and there were no relationships to speak of.
Despicable Me, from newcomer Illumination Entertainment, is the best of the lot so far. It’s slicker and better-paced than all of the non-DreamWorks entries, and it has more energy than any of its predecessors except Monsters vs. Aliens. Best of all, it’s got heart and sweetness eluding all the earlier entries.
Heart? Sweetness? (In villainous European accent) Don’t make me LOL! Heart is for eating at breakfast time! Sweetness is only flavor of revenge! That’s how I roll!
That’s Gru, a “supervillain next door” type voiced with panache by Steve Carell. To his suburban neighbors, he’s a grumpy bald guy whose house looks like the Haunted Mansion and whose ride makes the Dark Knight’s Batmobile look like a Prius. He’s the one who makes tasteless “jokes” about killing your dog if it goes on his lawn again and pretends not to be home when girls come around selling cookies. You know the type.
Little do the neighbors know that beneath that eyesore house is a cavernous Laboratory of Eeevil, filled with countless genetically engineered Oompa Loompa-like minions working feverishly on Gru’s latest dastardly plots. Well, perhaps they aren’t quite as dastardly as Gru would like them to be. Stealing the Times Square Jumbotron was a big win for Gru. Okay, he did steal the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, but … wait for it.
Now, though, there’s a mysterious new supervillain in town, and the scale of his heists — such as absconding with the Great Pyramid of Giza — threatens to make other supervillains look lame. Determined to make the A-list once and for all, Gru and his biggest admirer, a doddering Q-like tinkerer named Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), scheme to shoot for the moon — if they can steal the shrink ray machine needed for the plot and then secure funding from the Bank of Evil to build the rocket they’ll also need.
By what byzantine complications this setup leads to Gru taking the precipitous step of adopting a trio of orphaned moppets from Miss Hattie’s House for Girls — the very same girls he gave the brush-off on his doorstep when they were selling cookies — I will not reveal here.
Suffice to say that while Gru finds himself unexpectedly pitted against an upstart nerdy supervillain (or villainous supernerd) called Vector (Jason Segel), who is both more and less than he seems, it’s the three moppets — Margo, Edith and Agnes (Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier and Elsie Fisher) — that prove his biggest challenge.
It’s a familiar twist on the “Ransom of Red Chief” scenario, only instead of merely driving him to distraction, they get to him in other ways. Just imagine if Count Olaf from the Lemony Snicket books actually got hold of the Baudelaire children, and then had to deal with schlepping them to dance practice and escorting them to the amusement park.
It’s pretty predictable stuff, and it doesn’t all work. (The head of the orphanage, Miss Hattie (Kristen Wiig), is a bizarrely twisted Miss Hannigan type who slaps her charges in the Box of Shame for infractions real and imagined, a conceit that goes nowhere and does nothing. The only likely justification for this I can see would be if she turned out to be the mystery supervillain who stole the pyramid. (She doesn’t.) Even then, it would be better if she were all sweetness and light on the outside.)
But the moppets, generic as they are, really are super cute. (In an early scene, they offer a heartfelt prayer to be adopted.) Their interactions with Gru, e.g., tucking them in and reading them bedtime stories, slowly become genuinely lump-in-throat inducing. On the family-film spectrum of sincere and sentimental (Pixar, most of Blue Sky) to snarky and ironic (most of DreamWorks), Despicable Me leans solidly toward sincerity and sentiment.
Gru’s supervillainy is linked to parent issues: His mother (Julie Andrews!) is a scowling, disapproving harridan who squelches Gru’s boyhood dreams and needles him over his modest adult achievements. (Vector, too, turns out to have parent issues.) At the same time, Despicable Me suggests that we can overcome the deficiencies of our own upbringing and become better parents to our children than our parents were to us.
There’s something oddly endearing, too, about the lack of clear resolution in Gru’s relationship with his mother: Sometimes we have to learn to accept people as they are, including the fact that they may never see themselves as we see them. If we’re lucky, others may accept us the same way, however despicable we may or may not be.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor
and chief critic at DecentFilms.com.
Content advisory: Recurring rude humor; slapstick violence and animated excitement. Okay family viewing.