In Despicable Me, opening today, Steve Carrell plays a supervillain named Gru who only cares for fame... or rather infamy. Until he adopts three little orphan girls and grows a heart. Yes, it's totally sappy. But you know, it's fun.
Oh, and spoiler alert and stuff.
Here's what you really want to know about Despicable Me. If you need to go see a movie with your kids, will this be an okay one for an adult to sit through? And the answer is definitely yes. It's not a Pixar movie, or a Miyazaki film. There are no clever jokes, and almost no in-jokes aimed at adults that will go over kids' heads. It's not especially artsy or layered. But it is a good sturdy family film, and Steve Carrell gives an engaging performance as a supervillain whose heart grows a couple sizes, Grinch-style.
You could do worse — given the summer we're having, you could do much worse — than to take your kids to this one. But it's not a film that adults are going to want to watch on their own, really.
That's not to say that Despicable Me isn't a funny movie. It is — if you like fart jokes, like all right-thinking people. At one point, Gru's main gadget nerd. Dr. Nefario, misunderstands Gru's instruction to create a dart gun, and makes a fart gun as well. Dr. Nefario also mistakenly creates dancing "boogie robots," in a cute scene. And Gru's nemesis, Vector (Jason Segal), invents a spiffy new weapon — a gun that fires live piranhas. Later, he creates a gun that fires live squids.
A lot of the humor in Despicable Me is focused on cuteness, though. Like the scene where Gru, the angry, megalomaniac supervillain, is forced to read from an incredibly twee storybook about little kittens. He has to put his fingers inside little kitten puppets in the book, and make the kittens drink milk and do other cute kitten things, while reciting incredibly sappy lines about kittens. There's something about the incongruity of a supervillain having to recite crappy kitten poetry that's incredibly hilarious and yet touching, if you're in the right frame of mind.
Also cute: The little twinkie minions who are ridiculously incompetent, except when the plot requires them to be super-competent. You'll either find them winsome and hilarious, or annoying. I liked them a lot. Really, your attitude to this film depends on how you feel about cuteness. Here's the whole movie, distilled down to 30 seconds:
So in Despicable Me, Gru is a supervillain whose star is fading — his rival, Vector, has stolen the Great Pyramid from Egypt, and Gru needs a big score to prove that he's still got it. So he decides to steal a shrink ray and use it to shrink and steal the Moon, and then hold it for ransom. For reasons too contrived to go into, his plan requires him to adopt three little orphan girls. So he pretends to be interested in being their foster dad — but in a twist that will surprise absolutely nobody, he winds up actually becoming a real dad to them. I know, I just gave away the whole movie.
The thing that's interesting about Despicable Me is the way that it inserts supervillainy into the traditional "self-sufficient but empty man adopts cute kid(s) and blossoms as a human being" storyline. And relatively little has to change as a result of that, although Gru does embark on his quest to shrink and pocket the Moon, thank goodness. In a sense, the film suggests that every man is a supervillain until he becomes a father. All of the ways in which we see fatherhood softening Gru have to do with removing his villainous edges.
But also, being a supervillain makes Gru a better dad, because he knows how to stand up for his kids. As in this scene:
And conversely, being a dad winds up making Gru a more effective supervillain, the film hints at the end. (I actually want to see a sequel to this film, in which Gru has reconciled his two roles of "dad" and "supervillain," and maybe the little kids are helping him plan his next score.) Of course, he's probably on track to become a superhero instead of a supervillain, because you can't be a caring father and a dastardly villain at the same time in Hollywood's world.
We seem to be in the middle of a little bubble of "adorable supervillain" representations. We've had Dr. Horrible, Gru... and next up is Will Ferrell as the cartoon supervillain Oobermind, towards the end of the year. Could this be a trend?
So anyway, supervillainy and fatherhood. Given that a major preoccupation of our pop culture these days is men, and how men can still be men in a world that includes children and responsibilities and constraints and stuff, the supervillain is a pretty decent metaphor I guess. The supervillain, in his unreconstructed state, is the lone man, who doesn't owe anything to anybody and who does what he feels like. And so the domesticated supervillain of Despicable Me is one metaphor for how growing older and settling down forces men to become a more toned down version of themselves, but doesn't necessarily mean that they stop being awesome, or a little bit villainous. One wonders what the Michael Chabon of Manhood For Amateurs would make of it.
Bottom line: Despicable Me is a much better movie about fatherhood and how it changes you than Knocked Up. I picture a lot of dads taking their daughters to see this movie and watching the bit where Gru has to read the silly kitten book to the little girls, with a wry tinge of recognition.