"Despicable Me" Blu-ray Is Pretty Good at Being Bad
Despicable Me is a lot like Disney/Pixar’s Cars, in that it’s a good-but-not-great “how are we getting there?” kind of film rather than a “where are we going?” kind of film. Knowing nearly anything about the movie’s plot pretty much telegraphs exactly where it’s going to end up, so its pleasures are going to come purely from the execution. Fortunately, this first film from Illumination Entertainment hews much closer to Pixar’s approach than DreamWorks’, turning into an enjoyable popcorn film in the end that is often rather funny even if it’s also rather predictable.
The lead character of Despicable Me is Gru (voiced by Steve Carrell), a super-villain plotting the greatest crime of the century: stealing the moon right from the Earth’s orbit. Through a chain of mishaps and slightly crazed ideas, Gru finds himself the adopted father of three adorable little girls: the level-headed Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), the tomboyish Edith (Dana Gaier), and the adorable moppet Agnes (Elsie Fisher), who are a key part of executing his great lunar heist. Just as with Cars, even that much of the plot synopsis telegraphs exactly where Despicable Me is going: hearts will be melted, mistakes will be made, and someone will learn that there’s more important things in life than grand larceny involving giant stellar bodies. And, surprisingly, it manages to do all this with only one fart joke, and even that’s pretty funny.
Luckily, Despicable Me has just enough charm and good humor to carry it over the hump even if it’s predictable as hell. Steve Carrell is quite amusing as Gru, putting on a bizarro Eastern European accent that never sounds as fake as Shrek’s Scottish brogue. He can evoke a laugh just from the subtlest twists in phrasing and delivery, like when he mumbles “light bulb!” when he gets a great idea. He is also ably assisted by many of his other cast members, including Julie Andrews playing highly against type as Gru’s truly awful mother, Russell Brand as Gru’s friend and gadgeteer Dr. Nefario, Jason Segel as Gru’s annoying nemesis Vector, and the three girls who are all pitch-perfect. However, the biggest laughs come from Gru’s Minions: a mob of little yellow vitamin pills with varying numbers of eyes, wearing overalls and speaking in an amusing gibberish. They are just dim enough to get the pratfall laughs, but just smart enough to do some surprisingly sophisticated things throughout the movie. They’re also nicely indestructible, which is convenient when the movie does some horrible things to them like blowing them up, smacking them with hammers, and sending one poor slob floating away into outer space. About the worst sin that the movie commits is that it runs on for just a little bit too long, with an extended ending that probably could have been trimmed down a bit more.
Despicable Me doesn’t break any new technical ground in its CGI, but that’s partially by design. Illumination’s plan was always to avoid spending the 9-digit sums that Disney/Pixar and DreamWorks regularly pour into their movies, allowing the movie to be a success off much more modest ticket sales. This is not to say that the CGI is bad by any means, however. The animation is quite good and holds up well next to the bigger, badder, and more expensive competition. It’s also skilled enough to pull off some surprisingly subtle moments, and the movie’s script is also willing and able to work its silent moments, letting the animation carry important story points without any dialogue. Despicable Me was also always envisioned as a 3-D movie, but while there are definitely shots and gags that look like they were designed for the greater depth that 3-D provides, the movie doesn’t suffer at all being watched solely on a 2-D screen.
The three-disc Despicable Me Blu-ray combo pack is pretty loaded. It’s no surprise that the high-definition image looks spectacular; digital CGI animation seems to be especially well-suited for the latest and greatest in modern technology. The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack is also superb, with rich and immersive sound and some really impressive use of the subwoofer channel. A real cornucopia of extras is also provided, with the best being the 3 new short films centering mostly on the Minions. “Home Makeover” shows what happens when a social worker comes calling to ensure the girls are in a safe environment. “Orientation Day” follows three new minions as they watch an educational film strip and then get into trouble. “Banana” is the funniest of the three overall, as three minions get into an extended fight over a banana. The next-best extra is the commentary track by directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, who are “assisted” occasionally by some Minions. The track is quite informative while still being entertaining, although some of the Minion gags aren’t quite as funny as they ought to be. “Gru Control” promises laughs-a-plenty, threatening that Gru and the Minions will take over the screen periodically as you watch. I suppose it’s a credit to the movie that this is more annyoing than funny because it often interrupts genuinely funny moments in the movie for not-as-funny schtick or a gag lifted straight from another part of the movie. Three behind-the-scenes featurettes aren’t much more than press kit material: “The Voices of Despicable Me” takes a look at the actors, “The World of Despicable Me” glances at the making of the film, and “Despicable Beats” follows Pharrell Williams and Heitor Pereira through the making of the soundtrack and score. Two obligatory DVD games are included as well, and both are as tiresome as ever. There’s also a handful of cookie recipies (it makes sense in context), and they look right although I didn’t try any of them. The Blu-ray combo pack also comes with a standard-definition DVD of the movie and a digital copy as well.
The last bonus worth mentioning is Universal’s use of BD Live and their own “pocketBLU” application. Making bonus materials available on the Internet has always been a promise of Blu-ray, but its execution has always left much to be desired. Unfortunately, Despicable Me must be singled out for some spectacular failures in this regard. Load times on the disc seem interminable compared to other Blu-rays from other companies, and the whole thing seems much more insistent on pushing the network on you throughout. If you are on an Internet-equipped player, expect multiple annoy-ware ads along with a promotional ticker on the main menu screen. Even after the movie release date, the only BD Live features available are trailers and promos, many of which are already on the Blu-ray itself. pocketBLU is also a bit of a bust. It’s an app that can be downloaded to a PC or Mac, or smartphones of the iPhone, Blackberry, and Android variety. There is also a special iPad version that makes use of the device’s larger screen. Unfortunately, the only worthwhile addition it has is a live timeline that shows you where you are in the movie during playback and lets you skip around arbitrarily. The other “bonuses” are again either already on the Blu-ray or something you can discover and download for yourself (specifically, two disappointingly stupid but free apps). I found watching the movie to be a much more pleasant and less interrupted experience by putting the Blu-ray into the player that’s not hooked up to the Internet.
Despicable Me is a bit hard to really quantify. It’s certainly pleasant and funny enough, even if it’s overly familiar in the end, but that sounds like much less of an endorsement than I intend. I certainly enjoyed Despicable Me—it’s a bit more substantial than popcorn or cotton candy, but still not quite as artistically nourishing as the average Pixar film. It’s promising that Illumination’s first film out of the gate is as good as Despicable Me, but that still only puts it at or around the level of Cars. It’s certainly worth at least a rental, and even with the annoying Internet-enabled features, the Blu-ray is a wonderful, feature-laden package.