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ReThink Review: Despicable Me -- A Victim of the Toy Story 3 Hangover

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There's nothing egregiously wrong with Despicable Me, the new 3D-CG movie about a supervillain named Gru (voiced by Steve Carrell) whose dastardly plot to steal the moon hits a roadblock when his heart is unexpectedly warmed by three orphans. Aimed squarely at younger audiences -- who no doubt will be lured by the yellow, jabbering Minion characters who have blitzed every type of adspace imaginable -- the film will no doubt satisfy kids without annoying their parents too much (aside from the 3D which, as usual, varies from annoying to inconsequential to distracting). The audience I saw it with laughed quite a lot, and there are a handful of decent jokes aimed at adults (including a particularly good one at the expense of a certain investment bank). Despicable Me is a decent kids movie that will probably do fine at the box office.

But Despicable Me has one big problem that is no fault of its own: Toy Story 3.

See the trailer for Despicable Me below.

Of course, it's not really fair to judge a film by its competitors, especially when their stories aren't similar. But Toy Story 3 has raised the bar so high by showing the level of emotional power, riotous humor, thematic complexity and cross-generational appeal an animated movie can achieve, it has the effect of highlighting the deficiencies of lesser animated films. (See my review of Toy Story 3 here.)

Not that I would've been jumping up and down about Despicable Me in a non-Toy-Story-3 summer. The characters aren't well developed, particularly the three orphan girls, whose personalities aren't very distinct aside from their ages and contain nothing that would thaw the heart of a supervillain who would, by nature, have a limitless capacity for misanthropy. How and why Gru became a supervillain isn't addressed, though some flashbacks explain why he became so obsessed with the moon. An obstacle to Gru's plan to steal the moon that dominates the film's first half is suddenly and unsatisfyingly dismissed, and Despicable Me doesn't have any interesting themes or messages for kids. Carrell does an adequate job, though he doesn't sound particularly like a supervillain aside from an accent that sounds somewhere between a Russian gymnastics coach and Arnold Schwarzenegger. And, unfortunately, the film never delivers on the potential of its premise of going inside the daily life of a supervillain.

But plot holes, one-dimensional characters and weak messages ("Believe in yourself!") are hardly unusual in kids movies, particularly since studios often assume that younger audiences won't care about these things if there's enough noise, action, songs, slapstick and farts. But it's Pixar that proves time and time again that it doesn't have to be this way. Kids movies don't have to condescend to their target audience, and parents don't have to be tortured every time they take their kids to the movies. Just watch practically any Pixar film for proof.

Despicable Me is a decent, fairly entertaining movie that shouldn't anger, offend, bore or inspire anyone. But as we've seen from its competition, it could've been a lot more.

(For parents contemplating spending the extra money for a 3D viewing, save your money -- if your kids will let you.)

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