So I caught two kids' movies this week - both of which feature an Evil Mastermind who isn't as evil as he makes out to be. In both cases they have minions called Minion, and a Nemesis who out-evils them both. Both movies are set in the kind of juiced up day-glo world only animation can give us, and both try to have their cake and eat it - splicing cuddly feeeeeeelings with pop-culture banter and post-modern winking-at-the-audience in-jokes. And both feature all-star casts. I liked both, enjoyed both, but only one really moved me, and that's DESPICABLE ME.
In the old days, before the Berlin Wall fell, being Evil was easy. You leaved in a creeeepy Addams family house, you tortured people with medieval spiky things, and you affected an accent half-Soviet half Peter-Lorre. But poor anti-hero, Gru (Steve Carell), has been outpaced and outclassed by a young whipper-snapper called Vector (Jason Segel) who lives in a proper shiny evil lair complete with shark-tank and CCTV. Gru is evil, but hapless. Vector is evil, efficient, cocky and a royal pain in the ass.
Of course in our post-modern confessional culture no-one's really evil. Poor Gru had a mother straight out of developmental hell: nothing was ever good enough for her. And poor Vector was picked on at school. Really, these guys are just lovely, squeezy, fluffy little bunny rabbits on the inside.
So, when Gru adopts three cute cookie-selling orphan girls in order to use them to get access to Vector's layer, we know he's going to have his heart melted by them. And when he gets turned down by the Bank of Evil for the loan he needs to steal the moon, we know that his new kids and his minions, called Minions, are all gonna band together and build him a rocket ship anyways, MacGuyver styl-ee. Because, friends, we aren't in the world of Lemony Snicket, but little orphan Annie.
DESPICABLE ME is just, plain, no-nonsense cute. It tugs on the heart-strings. It's corn-dog cheese. But who doesn't love it when Gru does something selfless for the first time in his life and incinerates a fairground stall because the provincial dolt manning in has cheated his little girl out of a stuffed unicorn? And who doesn't cheer when Dr Nefario (Russell Brand) and the Minnions all band together to back Gru and build the rocket - pledging faith against all reason, all hope and all experience?
To be sure, Universal studios have tried to inject some adult-pleasing post-modern wit along the lines of movies such as SHREK and MADAGASCAR, but this is largely a distraction. Having a sign above the Bank of Evil saying "Formerly Lehman Brothers" is hardly Swiftian in its rapier-like subtlety. And having Gru use modern colloquial idiom just confuses his character with that of the ruthlessly teen-modern Vector. Nope. The strength of DESPICABLE ME is that we care about Gru and his girls, and we will him to succeed. And while this movie is no TOY STORY, it understands that underneath all the clever design and witty puns, ultimately, any movie, but especially a children's movie, succeeds in direct measure to how far its main characters elicit our sympathy.
DESPICABLE ME is on global release.