Brought to You, in Part, by NBC/Universal
Despicable Me is a great example of why I never walk out on movies. Ninety-nine percent of the time, if I’ve reached the forty-five-minute mark without cracking a smile—while, in fact, nodding off repeatedly after beginning the movie at 7:30 pm—I’m likely to be miserable for the remaining forty-five minutes. But in this case, my stick-to-it-iveness was rewarded by one of the most spectacular shifts in quality I've ever seen.
But, man, was the first half of this movie abysmal. I started watching this on Sunday night with my wife and mother-in-law. Forty-five minutes in, I was stirred from a half-dream by another blast from another exaggerated cartoon gun array coming from the TV; I sheepishly asked if we could please take a break and finish in the morning. My wife agreed, and the look on her face told me that she really didn’t care if we finished the movie or not—after all, there was a House Hunters International marathon on HGTV.
Yesterday, she said she’d be fine with my watching the rest without her, so I popped it into my computer and started at the beginning.
Watching this film on a good-night’s rest is worse than seeing it half-conscious. At least the frequent trips to the dreamscape are full of imagination and things I haven’t seen before. By the time the pointy-headed mad scientist brought out the fart gun, I’d already deleted half the spam from my work e-mail and located a couple of sweet blu-ray deals on Amazon (you may recall a similar predicament I had with Silent Hill, and while I’m still not proud of these diversions, I’ll do whatever it takes to finish a movie).
I’d also jotted down the makings of a vast conspiracy involving Universal Pictures, who produced the film. In the scene where evil genius Gru (voiced by Steve Carrell) reminisces with his army of squeaky yellow Minions about the time he stole the Jumbotron from Times Square, I noticed the NBC peacock logo sitting atop the screen. It seemed really obvious and random—until I remembered that Universal owns NBC; which airs The Office TV show—starring Carrell and fellow Despicable Me actor Mindy Kalling. 30 Rock airs in the same Thursday night sitcom block, and stars Jack McBrayer and, occasionally, Will Arnett—who also appear in the movie; along with Kristen Wiig, from Saturday Night Live. Oh, crap! Is that Ken Jeong, from NBC’s hit-com Community? Hey! There’s Danny McBride, star of next year’s Universal tent-pole comedy Your Highness. Seriously, this film must have been made during badge-in at Rockefeller Plaza.
But that’s what happens when my body is stuck and my mind has nowhere else to go. Strangely, though, a few minutes past the point where I’d turned off Despicable Me the night before, it got interesting. The movie’s setup and execution are tired kids’ stuff: Gru wants to prove that he’s not a washed-up supervillain by stealing the moon; to do this, he needs a shrink-ray developed by up-and-coming baddie Vector (Jason Segel) and a loan from the Bank of Evil that will finance his rocket ship. Gru adopts three orphaned girls to distract Vector long enough for him to steal the shrink-ray, and they eventually melt his heart with their big-eyed precociousness. This is the kind of picture whose every move can be predicted five seconds into its trailer.
The first half of Despicable Me involves Gru and Vector fighting each other in one scene after another that rips off every trope from Spy vs. Spy, The Incredibles, Tom and Jerry and fifty other classics; which is fine, if you’re five years old and have no idea what any of those things are. If you’re an adult, you’re more likely to marvel at the reflections in Gru’s shiny red plastic comb or the fact that his assistant Dr. Nefario looks like a cartoon version of Michael Berryman (Nefario is voiced by Russell Brand, star of Universal's Get Him to the Greek; sorry, I'll stop.) . Or you may wonder if all the truly creative animators and animation storytellers really do work at Disney.
At almost precisely the half-way point, Despicable Me becomes bearable—and, eventually, a true joy. After the crazy, unfunny zapping and spying and clichéd villain’s lair alligator pits, we get to the softening up of Gru. While the little girls never cease to make the Olson Twins’ work on Full House look like Hailee Steinfeld's in True Grit, they at least have a positive effect on Gru; his reading of “Three Little Kittens” at bedtime is sweet and funny and speaks to parents’ frustration at having to recite nonsense poetry from gimmicky cardboard books.
It’s here that I stopped seeing Gru as simply Steve Carrell testing out a crude Transylvanian accent in a sound booth while ogling Uncle Fester designs stolen from Charles Addams’ sketchbook. He becomes a real character, struggling to balance his childhood dream of conquering the world with his obligation to attend the girls’ ballet recital—which falls on the same day as the moon-shrinking expedition. This is also the point in the film where the plot revs up, most notably concerning the Bank of Evil and its relationship to Vector; even the Minions get something to do other than bounce around like Gremlins re-incarnated as work-boot-wearing Twinkies.
So, I’m left to wonder why the first half couldn’t have been a thousandth as good as the second. Did someone fire the writing staff in the middle of development and bring in people who give a shit about storytelling? I’ve said this before, and I can never say it enough: If there’s not a solid script behind the lush, revolutionary visuals, a movie cannot be considered good or even worthwhile (though a solid script will redeem an awful-looking movie almost every time).
Such is the case with Despicable Me. The animation and design are top-notch, but that’s de rigeur for any feature of this kind today (again, thanks to Disney/Pixar). What prevents this film from being a classic is the lazy first-half trudge through cartoon conventions that belies everything that comes after it.
Note: I should mention that it actually took three viewings for me to finish Despicable Me. I paused the movie ahead of an afternoon out with friends. I told my wife that it had gotten better, and I could tell she didn’t believe me; so we watched the rest late last night. Like me, she succumbed to its charms, and is still baffled by the mid-movie turnaround.