It’s been a strong year for mainstream animated movies. Toy Story 3, How To Train Your Dragon, Tangled, and Megamind all range from good to great, with varying degrees of inventiveness and warm humor. Despicable Me is no exception.
It’s true that Despicable Me’s story of an evil genius whose heart grows in size is also one told by Megamind. [Read my review!] It doesn’t have to be a competition, and I like both, but especially writing this after having seen both, it’s hard not to mentally link the two. Despicable Me had the advantage of getting to theaters earlier on the calendar, but the two are distinct enough that there’s room for both, and any similarities that the two share are ingratiating.
For one thing, the sensibility and the voice cast of both movies is completely dominated by the comedy boom of the last ten years, for which we can thank comedy masterminds such as Judd Apatow, Ben Stiller, and the Upright Citizens Brigade. Watch this:
Despicable Me features the voices of Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig, Ken Jeong, Mindy Kaling, Jemaine Clement, Rob Huebel, and Danny McBride (among others).
By contrast, Megamind features Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, David Cross, Bill Hader, Amy Poehler, Justin Theroux, and Ben Stiller. Not much of a contrast! Most of these people have worked together in all kinds of permutations over the last several years – not that I’m complaining one bit, mind you.
The ubiquitous Hans Zimmer is also present as composer on the scores of both movies – again, not a problem for me because I like what he does. And it plays out differently, primarily because Zimmer is joined by hip-hop producer Pharrell Williams. It’s a nice change-up from the usual orchestral thunderings in movies of this kind: Pharrell adds a jaunty playfulness to the sound of Despicable Me that makes it just different enough to be interesting. [Here’s the main theme.]
Another main difference comes from the sensibilities of the two vocal stars: Whereas the villainous Megamind initially has a lot in common with the mock-arrogance of many of Will Ferrell’s characters, Steve Carell’s Gru is a little sadder and lonelier. It helps that he looks not unlike the Danny DeVito version of the Penguin. Gru is more efficient and effective than most of Steve Carell’s more clueless characters (Michael Scott from The Office, Brick Tamland from Anchorman), and in fact he’s got a better shot than most supervillains do at achieving his villainous goals – in this case, stealing the moon. But there’s something missing. He has a mad-scientist sidekick (Russell Brand, surprisingly decent at playing a character other than himself) and an army of yellow rubbery Minions (kind of the Smurfs to Gru’s Gargamel, and by far the most memorable scene-stealers of the movie), but there’s a younger, nastier supervillain (Vector, voiced by Jason Segel) trying to steal his thunder, and Gru is losing his top-dog status. The moon heist is to be his last great grab at the supervillain gold, but the lack of an emotional connection to humanity – he has flashbacks to failed attempts at impressing his mother, voiced by none other than Julie Andrews – somehow seems to be sapping his mojo.
In a bid to derail Vector’s competing schemes, Gru comes up with the idea to adopt three orphan girls, so that he can teach them how to sneak into Vector’s lair, under the guise of selling Girl Scout cookies, so that they can help to steal the younger villain’s secrets. Instead, they steal Gru’s heart. Sorry, did that sound corny? It doesn’t play that way, although it occasionally comes close, and of course having three young girls involved in a war between two evil masterminds does necessarily reduce some of Despicable Me’s more manic possibilities. This isn’t a movie for adults, it’s not meant to have the anarchy of a Wile E. Coyote/ Roadrunner cartoon – it’s a family movie, and understanding that makes it easier to get into the portions of the story where sentiment gnaws at the edges. But the kid characters are more scrappy and likable than most (someone’s been taking notes from Pixar) and when all else fails, Steve Carell’s surprisingly-undistracting silly-accented vocal performance and the sponge-y, skittery Minions liven up the movie with an unusual, off-kilter sense of humor.
In a year that had its share of A’s, it’s popular to dismiss the B-plus’s. But Despicable Me is a whole lot of fun, and when it comes time for you to watch a kid’s movie, if it’s possible you could do better, it’s also possible that you can do plenty worse. If more movies worked as hard to be entertaining (and succeeded as often) as Despicable Me does, then the overall movie landscape would be a much better place.