Monday, July 12, 2010

Despicable Me: Spy Versus Spy Meets Bugs Bunny Humor in Postmodern Suburbia

A six-year-old child is just beginning to form cognitive connections about the outside world. They are beginning to understand other people, that things can happen in the future, and that there is such a thing as lying.

This new found awareness of tense, truth/falsity, and otherness also imparts the six to nine-year-old with a heightened awareness of jokes, riddles, and fantasy games. They suddenly "get" that people may not mean what they say, that someone can play a joke on someone else. Essentially, they suddenly understand the concept of irony, and they like it.

Or rather, one might say - as with a new found taste for peanut butter and playing doctor - they love it.

The most beloved childhood comic animations understand the six-year-old infatuation with simple irony. Think Bugs Bunny and his turning the tables on Elmer Fudd (six year olds also get such seemingly adult humor as Road Runner defying gravity when Coyote cannot, or Bugs Bunny in drag).

What's astute about Despicable Me, the latest animation from Universal Studios (the studio that brought us The Tale of Despereaux), is that it understands the six-year-old mind at least as well as Bugs Bunny ever did, and goes after guffaw after guffaw with an old-fashioned evil-genius rivalry and some easy sentimentality borrowed from Pixar. That's fantastic, if you're a six year old. If you're the adult accompanying them, well, the movie manages to be entertaining for a good hour and a half, and there are worse things you could be doing with your time.

Despicable Me
starts from the premise of making a kind of Austin Powers-esque villain into the movie's hero. Gru (voiced by Steve Carroll) is an evil genius with a nifty lair and a freeze-ray gun whose despicable genius was never understood by his indifferent mother, but who manages to eek out a decent living managing an underground hive of cute worker minions and a British evil scientist (voiced by Russell Brand), whose collective job it is to get into endearing mischief and occasionally perform mass mayhem.

The film's conceit is that Gru is secretly a softy who simply needs to express his fatherly tendencies in order to actualize his suburban existence while at the same time achieving the grand success that has so far eluded him (he has ambitions to shrink the moon, so he can steal it). Gru adopts three orphan girls, initially thinking they will suit his purposes combating his arch rival - the new evil upstart, Vector - only to find that he actually likes the annoying little things.

When real-life suburban spies are being uncloaked on the news, one can almost say this movie was prescient for setting its cold-war combat amongst the yuppie background of the modern suburbs. Gru versus Vector has a bit of a throwback Spy Versus Spy feel (the movie gets its humor executing Road-Runner-esque setups of various ray guns, shrink rays, and evil experiments going off), perhaps updated with a PC versus Mac art direction that places Gru squarely in the less sexy arena of the tried but true PC who must best his younger and nimbler Mac-ified rival.

There are some jokes here that adults will appreciate (the Lehman Brothers joke is worth an out-loud laugh), but most of the humor, well-executed as it is, is strictly of the Fart Gun kind. Those chattering minions are designed with evil genius as well: perfect for lunch boxes and fast food glasses, they are a kind of perfection of movie merchandising, and their appearance in the film as a kind of yellow Thebian chorus serves mainly as branding of themselves.

Most of the story seems borrowed from a recent Pixar movie - Up - which featured a similar crotchety old guy learning to open his heart to an annoying six-year-old. The genius of Up that this movie misses has to do with the depth of character and the facility with human insight. These characters lack the human contextualization that Pixar has become so grand at providing. Instead, even as their movie is 3D-ified, the characters exist purely in the 2D world of cartoon stereotypes. Gru eventually finds himself torn between attending the girls' dance recital and his plot to steal the moon, but it's an artificial choice (he decides to do both), and even if he's ready to adopt these girls, the only real difference between them and the masses of other minions already under his care is that they're not yellow.

In other words, he was a softy from the start - a plush huggable toy that's menacing enough to be funny to a six year old, as are the rest of the creations. The movie takes great care to get all the jokes right, and it goes after its young audience relentlessly. Judging from the reaction of all of the kiddies in the audience, they loved it.

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