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Yet another hat is thrown into the ring. Illumination Entertainment joins the stiff competition of Hollywood animators, bringing along with it a stellar voice cast and the ever-present 3D format. Christopher Meledandri, the man behind Fox’s own steady rise into one of the top three studios for the medium—along with Pixar and DreamWorks of course—left his executive job there to head up this new company, pilfering artist Chris Renaud to co-direct with Pierre Coffin the firm’s debut, Despicable Me. Let’s just say that it’s no easy feat to go up against the big boys without having a solid story, impeccable art design and animation, and, most notably, heart. That last one is the thing needed to turn a good film into one remembered and exalted. Meledandri knows how to create entertainment, he’s gotten some laughs with the Ice Age series and more, but, in my opinion, he has yet to hit that home run as a producer, including now. I applaud him for the effort here, his best yet, and can only imagine he and the studio will improve exponentially as they move forward into the future. Hopefully they earn enough capital to do so; competition only breeds more creativity and technological advancements.

The concept is an intriguing one, asking the question of whether a children’s film can succeed with a bad guy as its hero. Gru is the world’s second most infamous villain. He dresses the part, has an exotic Balkan-ish accent—although Steve Carell does fall into Austrian Schwarzenegger territory at times—and has a legion of minions at his beck and call. Stealing things like the NBC topped Times Square Jumbotron won’t vault him to the number one status he so desires, though. No, to pass the young newcomer Vector (Jason Segel) he will have to pull off the largest heist ever. But what is bigger than the boy’s Pyramid of Giza triumph? While nothing on Earth may beat it, the moon above just might do the job. So, after devising a plan with the help of his elderly and partially deaf cohort Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), Gru goes down to the Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers, ouch) and lays it all on the line for the manager Mr. Perkins (Will Arnett). Once he steals a shrink ray, he will take the bank’s loan to build a rocketship and fly off towards the moon, shrinking it and bringing it back down to take the credit. Those theatrical anchors on the news stations will have a field day looking into all the cameras surrounding their desks, gasping in dismay at the feat.

Despicable Me is a very funny movie, and with the cast it has, it better be. We are over a decade into the computer animation era, though, and good graphics and laughs don’t quite cut it anymore. Everyone, even those upstarts that self-finance a vision and render it all at home on their Mac can create pretty things. It all comes down to how the story resonates with its audience. Does it touch them, warm their hearts, and leave them wanting more? The filmmakers here realize this fact and try hard to make it a reality, but the sense of recall is too much to overcome. I couldn’t look at the adorably cute orphan girls without remembering the little one who so obviously inspired them—Boo from Monsters Inc. And although those yellow, indecipherably giggly minions left me in stitches more than once, becoming an abstract comic relief infusion, they simply mirrored their DreamWorks’ counterparts—those dastardly Madagascar penguins. I so wanted to appreciate these characters, the true heart and soul of the picture, but every time I thought I could let go, I only saw those that came before. But, if there is any consolation, both groups work better than their brethren, improving upon their inherent gimmicks.

This movie would be nothing without Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and especially Agnes (Elsie Fisher)—“It’s SOOO FLUFFY!!!!” Orphan children at Miss Hattie’s (Kristen Wiig) cookie-selling establishment, the three are exactly what a man like Gru needs to soften his edges and appreciate what it is life has to offer. Growing up with a mother that never showed approval (Julie Andrews), his penchant for destruction and nefarious deeds can be understood. Even the cute trio happened upon him as a means to an end, the holders of Vector’s favorite cookies and a surefire way into his lair to steal the shrink ray—without the pain of gunfire, bombs, blunt objects, and sharks blocking the path. But once he begins to bond in a fatherly way, the girls’ own fascination with weaponry and decimation touches his blackened soul. When Edith shrieks in pleasure at the amusement park, hoping to destroy another game after Gru implodes Jack McBrayer’s shoot-em-up station, the wry smile of love shows for but a fleeting second on the evildoer’s face. They are impressionable, loyal, and highly excitable, just like his pet minions. But the girls have a full range of emotion and intellect; finally equals he can teach and bring along as heirs to the antagonistic throne.

I won’t lie; the scenes of pure delight between Gru’s orphan wards and those rambunctious Corn Pops, (I don’t know if the title originates from the production or fans on the internet, but the comparison to Kellogg’s cereal is apt), were what I yearned for whenever left with Gru and his moon plot. Carell is perfect in the role—just wait until he reads “The Three Little Kittens”—and his interactions with Arnett, Segel, and Brand’s characters are funny. Thankfully, though, the filmmakers didn’t see his collaboration as the end all be all for the film, despite using his name above the film’s title on most marketing materials. He is but one cog to the tale, existing with the rest and playing his part. The story may center on his quest for world domination, but the way he treats his employees, (I can’t wait to see the inevitable short film depicting those minions’ escapades on the eventual DVD release), and adopted children wins out, projecting onto the main plot and changing the dynamics as a result. With references to Saturday Night Fever, Annie, and The Godfather amongst others, there is enough to keep both young and old enthralled until the end. I look forward to seeing Illumination’s next effort, hopefully retaining the charm shown here while also marking its own path creatively, leaving the blatant appropriations behind.

Despicable Me 7/10

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photography:
[1] Gru (voiced by STEVE CARELL) separates two arguing minions (voiced by JEMAINE CLEMENT) in Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment’s inaugural 3-D CGI feature, “Despicable Me”. The film tells the story of one of the world’s greatest super-villains, who has just met his greatest challenge in three little girls. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment Copyright: © 2010 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[2] (L to R) Edith (voiced by Dana Gaier), Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), Agnes (voiced by Elsie Fisher) and Margo (voiced by Miranda Cosgrove) ride a roller coaster in Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment’s inaugural 3-D CGI feature, Despicable Me. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment Copyright: © 2010 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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