The story is remarkably straightforward, with barely half a dozen characters, no subplots to speak of, no meta-narratives or endless riffs on pop culture. The ostensibly villainous hero might disguise the movie’s nature, but underneath that, Despicable Me is retelling the simplest of fables: It is a tale about the power of love to make us better people.
Such fables can come across as naive. As one who once wrote an essay lambasting the message of the classic Beatles’ song “All You Need Is Love,” I know that well (and, for the record, I stand by that essay). But I think the slickly animated Despicable Me manages to avoid insufferable rosiness. The details in the story’s arc feel specific and true, and the protagonist’s incremental transformation feels earned in its own fairy-tale sort of way.
The villainous hero is Gru (voiced by an unrecognizably accented Steve Carell), who fears he’s losing the super-villain throne to up-and-comer Vector (Jason Segel). Looking for an impressive caper to put himself back on top, Gru seizes upon the idea of shrinking and stealing the Moon. Unfortunately for him, Vector learns of the plan and steals the shrink-ray, so Gru needs to infiltrate his rival’s impregnable fortress. Foiled at every turn, he finally adopts a trio of cookie-selling orphans who cater to Vector’s sweet tooth. With the young sisters as his unwitting moles, Gru is certain that the shrink-ray and the Moon will soon be his.
The plot there isn’t much; it’s the details that give Despicable Me its charm. Instead of three anemic, interchangeable girls, the movie gives us perceptive, self-possessed Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), mischievous budding super-villainess Edith (Dana Gaier), and giggly, unicorn-loving Agnes (Elsie Fisher). Instead of a generic MacGuffin, we get the Moon scheme, something straight out of myth, grand and fantastical and poignant in its impossibility. And instead of a paint-by-numbers lair, the movie sketches Gru’s home with panache, contrasting his fabulously baroque, old-fashioned steam-punk contraptions with Vector’s sleek, antiseptic hideout. (Sean pointed out that Vector’s look is actually very Apple—everything white and cool and cornerless—which gave us a laugh. We recently ditched our underperforming, unreliable iPhones, and we couldn’t be happier.)
Best of all, Despicable Me gives us Gru’s minions, a throng of dim but fiercely loyal little creatures who speak in a squeaky pidgin language and convey a extraordinary range of emotions for undifferentiated pilular blobs. Whether scampering around in the background or horning in on the action, the minions add color, zest, and hilarity to every scene they’re in. They’re goofy but hard to resist.
Despicable Me marks the debut of Illumination Entertainment, a new animation subsidiary of Universal, but it owes a lot to Pixar. Little Agnes reminds me a great deal of Monsters, Inc.’s Boo, and Gru’s minions recall the three-eyed aliens of Toy Story and its sequels. But if Illumination is looking to Pixar for inspiration, they’re going about in the right way. Pixar’s hallmarks are eloquently stylized character designs, distinctively expressive vocal performances (not just Famous People Talking into a Microphone), and emotionally charged storytelling, and while Despicable doesn’t reach Pixar’s heights, it shows a lot of potential in the arena. Gru and company—particularly those rubbery little minions—are so well drawn that they’re fun just to watch, and the vocal performances, particularly Carell’s, are similarly outstanding in their quirkiness.
Most important, the story of Gru gradually becoming a real father to Margo, Edith, and Agnes might be predictable, but it’s touchingly heartfelt, composed of small shifts and quiet beats. Nothing happens overnight, and Gru never magically becomes an unreservedly demonstrative dad, but caring for the girls brings out the best in him in a way that makes sense for his quixotic character. Sweet but not stickily so, Despicable Me takes a well-worn cliché and brings it to funny, vivid life.