"Assemble the Minions!"
You can't swing a pixelated bug-eyed cat in a multi-plex these days without hitting a new digi-toon, being ground out like so many linked sausages, but with different degrees of quality. The technology is now such that the makers no longer have to worry about working around the complexities of the images; such strides have been made in the field over the last 15 years that the work approaches photo-realism, if that is the intention of the pixel-wranglers. What is exciting now, with the constraints no longer a factor, is seeing what the various creators around the world DO with it, and the visions that they create, whether their source be in the world or the mind. Now that reality is no longer a problem, the makers of these visions can effectively throw it away.
So, here's Despicable Me. You've been seeing the trailers for months, and for me, the impression has been a little "meh." Oh, the comic timing has been crack and the sensibility behind them a little twisted. But, whether that translated to a 90 minute feature is always the $20 million dollar question.
And Despicable Me is terrific. Frequently laugh out-loud funny, with breathless timing and a constant willingness to push the envelope in technology and story-telling. Sure, it has the obvious arc of a children's story, and you know how things will turn out, but the journey is the fun thing.
Gru (Steve Carell) is a "Fester-ish" super-villain on hard times. Oh, sure, he's not exactly hiding out in some super-secret headquarters somewhere—he only drives vehicles that pollute outrageously with a maximum of sparks and smoke, his is the only house in the neighborhood painted in dark, dingy colors and furnitured with Bondian uber-tech and stuffed animal corpses. Underneath is a vast gleaming complex linked by pneumatic tubes and what look like habi-trails, kept running by what appear to be thousands of animated twinkies.*He may seem like a villain who has everything (and what he doesn't have, he can obtain by ice-shackling the person who does with his "freeze-ray"), but there's a new villain named Vector (Jason Segel, voicing a character who's equal parts Bill Gates and Phil Silvers) who's just topped everybody by stealing one of the Pyramids. Good score. And the Bank of Evil ("formerly Lehman Brothers") likes the reaching entrepreneur with enough gall to think big when it comes to crime (call it "professional courtesy"), so they'll only dispense loans to those baddies with outlandish schemes. There's no greater "out-land" than The Moon, and so Gru sets his sights on it—a dream he's held since it was first pa-shawed by his crank of a Mum (Julie Andrews, wickedly unrecognizable).
But, you need a plan. And his involves orphans ("We got adopted by a bald guy...I thought it would be more like Annie"), a "Spy vs. Spy"-style industrial espionage plot, and...cookie-robots.
The thing is witty in look and happenstance: the people are bulbously malleable as in The Incredibles, and the sets have a Burtonesque retro-engineering feel to them, but because the animation is done in France, the flow and pace, and attention to detail, is quite unlike things state-side, making it intriguing and refreshing. The voice-actors are spot-on by being nearly impenetrably unidentifiable...you won't recognize Will Arnett, or Kristen Wiig (two of my favorite comic actors of the moment) or Russell Brand, and Steve Carell's Gru is an amazing comic performance featuring crack timing, muttered asides and a nicely Slavic accent that tortures its way through idioms.
And I love the buried movie references, little echoes of the past that tweak the unconscious, be they from It's a Wonderful Life, The Wrath of Khan, The Empire Strikes Back, or The Godfather (the last is so wickedly placed, I couldn't believe the writers were so sick to think of it). But, it's all done with its heart in the right place and a warmth of spirit tough to find in movies these days. It'll yank your heart strings to a ridiculously cartoonish length and never let them go. This is one for the whole family, even though the parents will need to do a bit of explaining along the way (some of the jokes will just sail past the heads of kids, which is always a sign of a good cartoon).
I saw Despicable Me in 2-D, but it might actually benefit a 3-D screening, especially for the end-title sequence where the Minions attempt to bridge the gap between the screen and the audience—a hilarious concept that's a bit mind-blowing when you think of it (and evidently there's a phone app that allows you to translate what they're saying during it—will wonders never cease?).
* Called "Minions," they have all sorts of uses and are voiced by the co-directors and "Flight of the Conchords" Jemaine Clement. Yee-es.