I finally went to see Despicable Me last night, arriving just late enough to miss most of the trailer for Disney’s Rapunzel movie (now titled Tangled) which I have become interested in mostly due to the involvement of Miss Kristin Chenoweth and, as a member of the Little Mermaid-generation, a nostalgically emotional investment in the return of Disney’s princess movies.
Despicable Me is a witty, visually splendid escape from the worries of your day. We were chuckling out loud from the very beginning at a surprisingly-politically incorrect intro in which a group of American tourists (fat, t-shirted and camera ready, their bus blaring ‘Sweet Home, Alabama’ into the Egyptian desert) discover one of the great pyramids has been stolen, replaced with a deflating tarp. An over-caffeinated news report about the extent other countries are taking to protect their landmarks follows: the Wall of China is shown surrounded by tanks, which all aim and fire at a passing dove.
The plot concerns the rivalry between high-tech super-villains (who hold countries to ransom but, importantly never appear to kill anyone). Gru, voiced by Steve Carell, is a vaguely-Russian mastermind who works with apparent immunity from his neighbourhood, figuring out grand things to steal with the inventions built by his army of little, yellow, pip-squeak minions. He adopts three little girls from an orphanage who sell cookies in order to break into the lair of his rival Vector (an over-the-top nerd stereotype voiced by Jason Segel). Of course, the girls, through their cuteness and sass, begin to soften Gru’s rough edges and we all know where the story’s going.
The movie is a continuation of the subgenre of computer-animated super hero/villain films, with its high-tech inventions and family values evoking The Incredibles most directly. But Despicable Me borrows a number of motifs from a range of cartoons, television and film of the last fifty years.
First, there’s the look of Gru himself: with his oval head, deep-set eyes and total absence of neck, he’s a dead-ringer for The Addams Family Uncle Fester, both Christopher Llyod’s movie version and the original New Yorker drawings of Charles Addams. Gomez and Morticia would also feel at home at his house, a hilariously renovated gothic version of the suburban townhouses that surround it. When the three little girls are picked up by Gru and cautiously step into their child-unfriendly new home, I was reminded of the identical scene in the almost-forgotten Jim Carrey vehicle Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. I couldn’t even find a picture of the little girls online to illustrate this point, which shows you how much they were pushed out of the previews in favour of the more action-packed shenanigans of the two super-villains.
Both in animation and tone, the film resembles Warner Brother’s cartoons, especially those frustrating crusades of Wile E. Coyote. One half expects to see the name ‘Acme’ on Gru’s rickety tools of destruction. Gru’s machines, all metal and bolts and occasionally-exploding, are clearly IBM to his rival Vector’s Mac, whose look is all sleek white plastic. This was the same visual dichotomy of the star-crossed robots Walle and Eve in their post-apocalyptic romance.
Finally, the concept of having an army of cute little workers hidden under one’s house is indebted to Willy Wonka and his Oompa Loompas (while I complained that the appearance of the minions, who are essentially yellow ovals, should have been developed more realistically, I am certainly glad that they don’t look like little people in orange make-up!), but they kept reminding me of the industrious Doozers from Fraggle Rock, continuingly rebuilding their crystal towers which the Fraggles ate casually and compulsively.
All of which is fine. Most movies draw on a myriad of inspirations and, by putting them together, create something new. Nothing despicable about that.