A few years ago my eleven year old sister was writing an essay on violence in school. During our discussion of different types of violence she astutely pointed out that not all violence is physical, and that a mean comment can be just as violent as a punch in the face. This led to an involved conversation about bullies in which, at one point, my sister looked at me and said “I think bullies are mean to the kids at school because no one is nice to them at home. No one is giving them love.”
Despicable Me is the story Gruu (Steve Carell), a young boy whose dreams of traveling in space were thwarted by an uncaring mother resulting in a grown-up bully most proud of being the world’s greatest villain. That is until he is bested by the younger, sleeker Vector (Jason Segal) and must enlist three orphaned girls in his grand plan to steal the moon. While the title suggests that this is a film about a villain and his despicable acts, it is truly a love story about the bonds of parenthood, and the many ways people become family.
Like many animated features Despicable Me appeals to both adults and children by providing timely social commentary amidst silly sights and situations. The beauty of animation is that it allows imaginary caricatures to perform acts that are very real, and very human. The title alone is a reflection of the human condition, for any one of us can be the “me” in question, participating in any variety of despicable acts on a daily basis. As the titular Me, Steve Carell adds another credit to his list of bumbling anti-heroes we love to see succeed. Though his accent is mildly distracting, audiences will recognize the same humble wit that endears us to him week after week on The Office. Segal is equally impressive as Vector, a geek turned villain in response to a consistently disappointed father. But it is the always awesome Kristen Wiig who is perhaps the most despicable of all. As orphanage headmistress Miss Hattie Wiig delivers her lines like glass of sweet tea with razor ice cubes – sugary sweet and viciously sharp all in the same mouthful. Clearly a jab at the adoption system, as well as gender and class privilege, she callously sends Margot, Edith and Elsie out the door with the despicable Gruu, who offers no credentials or identification but is simply disguised as a doctor.
While the film neglects one of my cardinal rules of feminist filmmaking – positive female role models, it did call into question traditional roles of masculinity, especially in response to parenthood. Margot, Edith, and Elsie were role models in their own right, emulating and each serving as a manifestation of responsibility (Margot), skepticism (Edith), and unquestioning affection (Elsie). In addition to having some of the funniest lines in the film, the sister’s camaraderie and confidence in their own relationship, as well as their unconditional love for each other and those around them, is what eventually turns Gruu from super bad, to Super Dad.