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movie review

A scene from Despicable Me.

Despicable Me

  • Directed by Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin
  • Written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio
  • Starring Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Julie Andrews
  • Classification: PG

Any kids' flick called Despicable Me has won over subversive me right from the title. There it is, a Latinate word with more syllables than little Johnny has birthdays, stuck up on the marquee just daring the tykes to understand. But it gets riskier still: How about a plot where every adult character is a villain, and the ugliest one doubles as the main protagonist? Then risky gets clever when the title's linguistic mouthful is followed by a "cast of minions" who speak no language at all, communicating just through strange squeaky emissions that, nevertheless, are delightfully nuanced and perfectly understandable. The effect is Chaplinesque if Chaplin had the latest in gadgetry, because the entire picture is also shot in 3-D that, for once, puts all 3 of the Ds to imaginative use.

Now consider that the risks and the cleverness and the imagination pay rich dividends, factor in a climactic sight gag accessible enough to have the kiddies giggling yet literate enough to leave grad students smiling, and the urge is irresistible: Roll out the stars, one for each deliciously despicable syllable. This animated thing pretty near out-Pixars Pixar.

Let's start with the beaky-nosed, slope-shouldered, round-bellied, spindly-legged, black-clad nasty who (courtesy of Steve Carell's vocal ingenuity) speaks in an accent that seems to have bubbled up from some Eastern European bog. That would be Gru and, you might have guessed, Gru ain't good. More surprising is the sad fact that Gru isn't half as bad as he wants to be. Younger and more tech-savvy baddies, like the upstart Vector (Jason Segel), have pushed him far down the villain's depth chart. Worse, there's still the competition from such classic miscreants as the mean-minded Miss Hattie at the children's orphanage, or the sleazy CEO of the "Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers)" who's refusing to float him any more loans for his nefarious schemes.

Well, eager to get his rep back, what's a Gru to do but shoot for the moon. Literally: shoot the moon with a "shrink-ray machine," thereby reducing it to the size of a baseball that can be secreted away in a proud super-villain's pocket. The catch? The machine must first be stolen from Vector's lair. The solution? Too convoluted to dwell on, but it involves adopting a trio of orphaned sisters - the eldest Margot, the rambunctious Edith and the heartbreakingly naive Agnes - from Miss Hattie's cruel establishment.

These plot twists allow for a couple of time-honoured consequences popular in children's tales. One is visual: All that shrink-ray stuff lets co-directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin have lots of fun playing with Swiftian shifts in perspective. And the other is emotional. Needing to curry the favour of the orphans, Gru must pretend to do what harried moms and dads are obliged to do - act like a caring parent. The three bully him into reading them bedtime stories, into going to their damn dance classes, into riding the roller coaster at the amusement park. Great 3-D effects on that coaster, but even better is the old-fashioned 2-D humour throughout. Gru is a crotchety touchstone for those times when parenthood is less a joy than a burden. So, in these sequences, the kids in the audience are laughing at him and the adults are laughing with him - we have seen the villain and he is us.

Still, the guy is not without allies. Down in the basement of his Gothic hideout, those loyal minions are ready to advance his dark designs. Happily, they themselves are light and bright - yellow fellows, shaped like pincushions, sporting spiky hair and blue overalls and goggles covering their lone eye (actually, a lucky few have two). Burbling away in their squeak-speak, the minions are an adventurous, sarcastic, curious, shrewd and trouble-loving horde of scene-stealers, indefatigable even through the closing credits, where several of them band together to send up all those awful 3-D flicks from days past - yep, they stick it to us.

As for the awful Gru, don't be too hard on him. A few quick flashbacks reveal his own tortured childhood, cursed with one of those constantly belittling mothers (Julie Andrews no less) who, upon hearing her boy's wish to be an astronaut, snaps back, "You're too late - NASA isn't sending monkeys any more." No wonder he now wants the moon.

Which brings us to that climactic sight, way up in the stratosphere, where vice is softening into virtue and a mistreated son is evolving into a kindly father. There, clinging to the outside of a wayward spacecraft, the orphans are in jeopardy and, from amidst this superfluity of villains, a hero finally emerges, urging the children to jump from their precarious perch into his waiting arms. At that lovely moment, who else is he than an airborne Holden Caulfield, trading in his despicable past for a lofty future as The Catcher in the Sky.

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