As I’ve said before, computer animation has always done its best at making cute things that normally aren’t, including ogres, monsters, fish, rats, robots, and aliens. It wasn’t going to be long before the same cuddlification was applied to the type of character whose entire purpose is not to be loved: the supervillain. Gru (played by Steve Carell with an odd, eastern European accent) presents himself as the best example of just such a character when he makes a speech to his many minions (who look like little Twinkies with eyes and appendages) at their little “company” shareholders meeting. Gru needs to drum up enthusiasm so they can beat the new kid on the block, Vector, who’s just stolen the Great Pyramid of Giza (which is hilariously kept hidden behind his headquarters by having sky and clouds painted on it). To qualify for a loan from The Bank of Evil, Gru needs to steal a shrink ray from Vector. That’s where the orphans come in. Margo, Edith, and Agnes are three adorable, saucer-eyed little girls eagerly yearning for adoption as they go from house to house peddling cookies. Once Gru notices that Vector has a sweet tooth, he decides to adopt the girls and use them as mules for his scheme — despicable, no? I’m sure it’s no surprise what follows as Gru’s Grinch-like heart starts to melt.
The movie is definitely charming, and a lot of the humour comes from the clash of the super-villain world and the world of kids. Gru makes bunk-beds for the girls from unexploded bomb casings (which probably won’t go off). He sends his yellow minions in disguise to the department store to buy a stuffed toy. He even makes pancakes into macabre shapes for their delight at breakfast. Unfortunately, the story needed a lot more story. The balance tipped too much in favour of the kids’ story and, as a result, the potentially exciting, momentum-driving story of Gru’s own master plan (to steal the moon) and his competition with Vector was rushed and half-baked. While the Gru-as-new-dad plot line progressed in an extremely predictable arc, the other story could have held some suspense and thrill. (See Pixar’s The Incredibles for a much better example of balancing the family and super-hero stories while including a healthy dose of both.)
The animation was pretty good, especially the art direction. All the character designs were fresh and fun (except for Vector, who had a bowl haircut, nerd glasses, and an orange sweat suit — yawn!). Vector’s base, ships, weapons, all had a kind of futuristic Apple-store look, and Gru’s stuff (and even he himself) had the gothic look of Igor-gone-Deco (I truly love his anaconda floor lamp — yes, his furniture is all made from wild animals). I think the unsung character will be the mistress of the orphanage, Miss Hattie, who is that despicable blend of prim, disapproving suburban house-wife, and cutthroat, heartless business woman (she uses the orphans to generate cookie-revenue). The way they animated her movements, and micro-expressions were dead-on. I wish they’d made more of a point about the irony of her true villainy.
In any case, this is a family film without question. It teaches typical lessons of love and blended families, of human relationships being more important than selfish goals, and that every hard-hearted curmudgeon just needs a little sweetness in his life. (4 out of 5)
P.S. With all the 3D films popping up now, I decided not to see a lot of the movies in 3D. I don’t think it’s always worth the money. However, this time, I kind of wish I had, not because the movie itself is so great for 3D, but during the credits, there’s a little segment where the yellow minions try to push themselves further and further out into the third dimension. Without 3D, that seemed kind of cute, but with the glasses, I’m sure it would have been pretty cool.