Monday, October 11, 2010

Review - Despicable Me

There's a great, dark and funny movie to be made about two supervillains battling each other for world domination, but Despicable Me isn't it. This 3D animation has some great ideas and a talented comic ensemble, but it retreats from the edge of anything daring or subversive, playing it safe and never allowing its characters to be, well, despicable. "It's just a kids' movie," you may cry, but that excuse simply doesn't wash anymore (if, indeed, it ever did). Just in the past year or so, mainstream animation has given us films like How to Train Your Dragon, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and just a few months ago, Pixar's masterful Toy Story 3. That's where the bar has been set, and Disposable Me just doesn't come close.

Things start promisingly enough. The lead villain of the piece is Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), a bald, oddly-shaped fellow with an incongruous Russian accent, who spins around town in his enormous, tank-like car and happily blasts bystanders with his freeze ray. His more dastardly plans, however, don't succeed as often as he would like them to, which is causing some consternation down at the Bank of Evil (a sign above their door reads, "Formerly Lehman Brothers" - the film's best gag). More worryingly, Gru's thunder is constantly being stolen by young upstart Vector (Jason Segel) whose ability to pull off grand heists (such as stealing a pyramid) and his hi-tech wizardry is making Gru look a little old-fashioned. To regain his place as the world's number one crook, Gru begins putting together a plan to steal the moon, and so begins a series of tit-for-tat struggles between Gru and Vector, as they compete to steal the necessary shrink ray and get to the moon first.

Alas, this is about as far as Predictable Me's imagination takes it. Neither Gru nor Vector are strong enough characters to make their battles come to life, with both Carell and Segel's vocal choices feeling at odds with their roles. The only actor to really make his performance work, surprisingly, is Russell Brand, whose work as Gru's grumpy cockney sidekick is excellent, while much of the film's comedy is based around Gru's other assistants, his many minions. These small, yellow creatures, indistinguishable from one another, run around squeaking unintelligibly and get involved in some slapstick fun that occasionally lifts the mood. They have some amusing moments, such as getting shrunk or accidentally sent into space, or going on a shopping trip to buy a toy unicorn, although I lost patience with them when directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud decided to involve them in an impromptu dance sequence.

It feels like the kind of moment that has been shoehorned into the picture to please the masses, whether it belongs there or not, and Underwhelming Me is full of such misguided decisions. The film loses its edge from the minute Gru, for reasons to tedious and strained to recount, decides to adopt three cute little orphans (Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier and Elsie Fisher), who then proceed to gradually melt his heart and making him reconsider his chosen lifestyle. We learn that Gru was never loved enough by his own mother (Julie Andrew) growing up, and the film settles for lots of lesson-learning and hugging, with whatever comic potential it had having long been left behind. Add to this the flat and unpolished animation style and you have a film that's a misfire on every level, a film crippled by a lack of nerve, ambition and imagination. This is the first production from Universal's new family-centred subsidiary Illumination Entertainment, but if they want to mix it up with the animation big boys, they'll have to produce films that are way above the mediocre standard set by Forgettable - sorry - Despicable Me.