Stuff like “Despicable Me” plumbs the downside of the democratization of technique. It used to be that the expertise for creating animation, or any sort of technically demanding process, was expensive and time-consuming to develop, leaving just a few groups (like Disney) to indulge in it. The creation of CGI has widely expanded the options for actual feature length animation techniques to the point where–while not everyone can do it–anyone with sufficient pockets can.
This is undoubtedly a good thing as it increases the pool of talent and removes tremendous roadblocks from the path of new talent, similar to the way digital video and cheap high definition has left the micro-budget film market to bloom. But it has its price and “Despicable Me” is the big screen version of it. It’s bland, undercooked and under thought because it’s been so (relatively) easy to make.
You see this particularly with animation. Without the guiding hand of a Brad Bird or Andrew Stanton, animator’s worst impulses for gags and easy visual jokes often take hold with no one or nothing to check it. Movies like “Despicable Me” play as nothing more than extended group ‘wouldn’t it be great if ’ sessions that have gone right from brainstorming to the screen with no one to stand in the way and say ‘hang on a second.’
There are exceptions to this of course; Don Bluth has certainly made his share of stinkers for instance, but with CGI family films having taken hold as a potentially easy money maker, it’s becoming a more widespread phenomenon than ever before.
“Despicable Me” is essentially a collection of sights gags jammed together with sticks and gum and called a movie. Gru lives in an exceptionally evil looking suburban house, he crushes other cars in his tank while parallel parking, he has a gaggle of identical minions who do his grunt work, that sort of thing. His villainy hasn’t been as successful lately and in order to pull his plan to steal the moon he’s going to need another loan from the Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers) but before he can get it he’s going to have to prove himself by stealing a shrink ray from the Chinese military.
It’s the sort of thing that finds the idea of Gru’s scientist Dr. Nefarious (Russell Brand) accidentally making the wrong weapon so funny it repeats the gag several times. We get similar ‘wit’ from Gru’s villainous rival Vector (Jason Segel) who is obsessed with fish, from his aquarium floor to his squid-shooting gun. It’s all covered by dialogue that painfully attempts to be pre-teen hip, and fails miserably.
Before he can get the shrink ray, it is stolen by Vector himself and locked up inside his seemingly impenetrable fortress. Luckily for Gru, Vector has a sweet tooth for oatmeal cookies. Even luckier, a group of orphaned girls from the local home for girls have been selling cookies door to door to keep orphanage’s administrator (Kristen Wiig) in the lifestyle she’s become accustomed to. Clearly, Gru will have to adopt them and learn some lessons about humanity in order to use them as a delivery system for his cookie robots.
Carrell himself offers some real feel to Gru in a heavy eastern European accent, particularly in the odd glimpses we get of Gru’s exceptional unhappy childhood at the hands of his domineering mother (Julie Andrews). And the minions are occasionally funny, but that’s more a result of a throw everything at the wall and see what sticks mentality which fills the entire film.
“Despicable Me” is bright and pretty enough that kids will like it, which is certainly its aim. It’s also brainless, heartless and soulless. A good vocal performance by Steve Carrell and a few gags work, which is about all that saves it from the junk pile, but not by much.