Movie Review: Despicable Me

Universals first CGI film is no 'Toy Story'. It's not even 'Cars'

Despicable Me can boast all it wants about being the highest-grossing non-Disney-Pixar/non Shrek animated film of all time in the U.S., but a) that’s a bit of a mouthful and b) compared to the business done by the swansong of Dreamworks green ogre this year – even before mentioning the powerhouse performance of Pixar’s already classic Toy Story 3 a couple of months before that – it makes such a claim akin to Maurice Gibb putting his hand up at Bee Gee’s rehearsal and saying “me, me, me”. In a really high voice.

Nevertheless, with a strong cast (including Russell Brand, Dame Julie Andrews and Steve Carell in the lead), a neat little premise (the film deals with the adventures of supervillans rather than heroes) and a soundtrack composed by Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams and performed by a 67-piece symphony, Despicable Me did remarkable business upon its release in the U.S. this July – Universals first CGI feature ranking as the Hollywood titans sixth highest ever box-office grossing.

Can the movie do the same sort of trade in the UK? Probably. Does that make it a great film? Not really.

It’s testament to the inroads made by cinema screened animation in the last decade as mass-market fare, that the competent showing by Despicable Me can be deemed to be a creative failure. It’s got all its bits in the rights place – an engaging lead character, supervillan Gru, buoyed by the ever-likeabe zest of Carrell; some impressive 3D sequences (there’s a rollercoaster scene midway through the film that’s more exciting than most experiences I’ve had sat in Odeon with silly, plastic glasses on lately); the presence of the Minions, identikit pharmaceutical pill shaped supporting characters that do the evil bidding of Gru and provide the majority of the movies best moments.

But compare and contrast the film with the output of Pixar, at least three of the Shrek movies, Monsters Vs. Aliens, How To Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda, et al, and it looks pathetically mismatched.

Much of the films failings lie with how exclusively Despicable Me pitches itself as a children’s movie. There’s little for adults to enjoy here, thereby negating the principal come one, come all factor behind the renaissance of animation in recent years. This doesn’t mean a film such as Universals offering needs to be risqué – correct me if I missed something, but I didn’t spot a single strap on dildo in Up last year – nor, for that matter, does it mean that anyone under than the age of sixty ever needs to use the word risqué ever again. But what it does need is a story with depth, emotional resonance and humour which transcends mere slapstick and spoof.

And, truth be told, it could do with being a little less boring too – explosions will mask a lot of lazy narrative (hey, it got Rambo to Vietnam and back) but unless you’re an excited child wired on Flumps, probably not that nothing much happens in Despicable Me for the first thirty minutes or so. From there in it’s a series of Spy vs. Spy style set ups (which just made me want to watch the infinitely smarter and funnier Spy vs. Spy instead) in which Gru and his nemesis Vector (Freaks and Geeks’ Jason Segel) attempt to outdo each other with…. Oh sorry, I nodded off briefly. Who’s winning this inane battle of evil versus evil? Oh, it’s Gru. That’s good. Yes, I know I’ve got drool on my chin.

Despicable Me isn’t a bad film. But nor is it good one. It lies somewhere in-between in that depressing void known as ‘films single dads take their kids to’. Yet its very existence suggests animation is still the darling of big screen scheduling – and that Universal now want to join the party. Their movies inevitable commercial success will fund the studios further adventures. But the company has some way to go before they catch up with the artistic successes achieved by their smarter, more talented brothers.

James McMahon