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It’s never easy when a colleague does something a little better than all the rest, making it seem like there’s no point in working at all. But when you’re a supervillain and get bested by another, it goes doubly so. Such is the case for Felonious Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) when an unknown mastermind commits an act of villainy so outrageous it … well, pretty much makes everyone else look lame. At least that’s what Gru’s sciency gadget guy Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) says after the Great Pyramid of Giza is straight up stolen.
Not to be swept under the rug, Gru decides he’s gonna do one better, and comes up with a plan to steal the the Moon. The Moon. Naturally, it needs some planning, and there’s expenses to consider, so he heads to the Bank of Evil, which funds various schemes of ill repute, and indeed the bank’s president is impressed, but refuses to loan the money until Gru can show he’s got a workable shrink ray to do the job. Even cartoon banks make everything so hard.
With some work, Gru and his bumbling, lovable minions do get their hands on a ray, but it is immediately stolen by Victor “Vector” Perkins (Jason Segel), an up-start but very successful villain who is responsible for the Pyramid theft, which he then hided at his nearly impenetrable fortress, rigged with various outrageous booby traps. After a number painful and failed and funny attempts to get inside, Gru notices three young orphan girls selling cookies who manage to get right past security. A scheme forms.
Disguising himself as a dentist, he visits Miss Hattie’s Home for Girls where he adopts the three children, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Elsie Fisher). Thinking it will be easy to use the little kids for his nefarious plans, he quickly learns that nope, these girls are not his minions, and they’ve got their own kiddie agenda. They want a real parent.
Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, Despicable Me seems like another silly superhero-esque film, but turns it all on its ear and ends up being something altogether different. While it’s loaded with some fun and clever computer animation, and great voice work by the entire cast, it’s real success is the strong story that allows these characters to have a lot more weight than the genre would lead to expect. Flipping the heist theme into a tale of parental love and familial understanding, the movie manages to keep the explosive fun of the original premise while layering it in some truly emotional bonding moments. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
The girls move into Gru’s house of evilness, not yet knowing that he is a criminal mastermind of sorts. As orphans, they are happy to be taken in and have high hopes, with the eldest, Margo, assuring the others that things will be okay, even on their first day when Gru runs down the rigid no-annoying-noises rules and then abandons them for six hours. Kind of.
The girls, growing bored, eventually find their way down to the Gru’s laboratory and of course get discovered, where he explains, or rather bends the truth, that he is actually a “spy” and these weird things they see are his important spy gadgets. Meanwhile, the girls meet the oddly-shaped yellow minions and in their naivety, don’t think much of what’s happening as Gru continues his plans to infiltrate Vector’s hideaway using the girls as bait. They just want a dad.
As time passes, and Gru learns that taking care of three young girls is not so easy, what we see is a slow shift in his cold, scheming heart. The little ones have a way of warming his innards, such taking him to an amusement park, which slowly distracts him from his main mission, which leads to the bank rejecting the money. In a surprise move, the girls then offer their own piggybank to help.
And it’s this gesture that truly turns Gru around, even if not entirely away from his evil plan, at least in his feelings about the girls. A running gag of sorts in the story is Gru putting Margo, Edith, and Agnes to bed, with him each time becoming less detached and more involved. Finally, this leads to a moment when the girls, who sleep in gutted bomb shells (though decoratively painted), ask him to read a bedtime story, something he’s refused before, and does so again here, but this time, they tease him and a little part of him actually seems to want to stay, so he relents.
The book of choice is Sleepy Kittens, a finger puppet book about kittens who don’t want to go to sleep. Naturally, the three kittens in the book come to represent the girls, with even their fur matching the colors of their counterpart children. As the the three listen with great joy to Gru’s reading, he finds it to be a silly book, criticizing every page, but we also sense, as the girls huddle around him, the activity is also kind of ingratiating. He’s come to like the little girls and is developing a natural parental bond with them and this simple act of kindness has some real effect.
Then comes the stinger. As the story book tells of yawning kittens full of warm milk, the girls themselves begin to nod off. Gru, now somewhat enraptured by the fate of the cats, reads on, getting emotionally tugged by one particular line, the last one, which tells how even though the mommy cat and her babies will be apart as they sleep, she still loves them with all her heart. Go ahead and cry.
It shakes him too, and he abruptly gets up to leave, waking the girls who ask for hugs and kisses before they sleep. He refuses and leaves, but we hear in his voice that something is changing in Gru, that these little girls have become more important to him than even, well, even stealing the Moon.
And here we see perhaps a broader meaning to the Moon itself, a theme emerging that brilliantly took nearly all of the film to come into play. Think of the Moon and what it often represents, with idioms using the Moon to express human desires, hopes, and frailty, all in the name of the orb. Gru from the start has been bent on shrinking the Moon and making it his. We have in English, expressions such as “reach for the Moon”, “ask for the Moon” and of course “promise the Moon” among many others. As Gru’s story unfolds, we can make connections to these ideas and see how they reflect his own desires and their shift from himself to those he cares for.
Still, it takes time, and under pressure from Nefario, he actually makes a choice that puts his love for the girls in question, even as he accomplishes what he’s so longed to do, which itself ends up feeling hollow. We have Gru, in space, holding the shrunken Moon, thinking he has it all but reminded of what he really lacks, which leads to another expression, “over the Moon.” What is his true great happiness? What has literally sent him over the Moon and what, more importantly, has figuratively done so?
Despicable Me might not have the charm of say of a Pixar film at its best, but it never seems to aim to either, rather going for more absurd physical gags and high energy for laughs, and yet, it ingeniously crafts a terrific family film with some great heart as well that isn’t emotionally manipulative. Funny, well-animated, and cleverly-written, this is a good movie, and a moment with a children’s book makes it one better than expected.