Imagine a world where being a bad guy is a profession just like any other: villains go to Starbucks, ride around town in their metal-plated hybrid cars/rockets, and put on their spiffiest black shoes to go demand unreasonably large bank loans to finance their evil projects. Actually, that sounds a little like the world we read about in the news, doesn’t it? (Except for that car/rocket, of course—most of our villains aren’t driving hybrids of any sort.)
Despicable Me—the latest in the epidemic of Pixar-inspired 3-D animated films with more to say to adults than to kids—strikes a chord precisely because the world it inhabits is such a thinly veiled version of our own. The concept of grounding a kid’s movie in real life is not new, of course: think of all the pop-culture references littered about in Shrek or the warning about climate change thrown into Happy Feet. What is striking about Despicable Me is its strange insistence that evil is now endemic to the mainstream, and that the only way to avoid it is to ignore it. Have a nice day, kids!
Despicable Me tells the story of Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), an old-school villain with a bald head, black-and-grey wardrobe, and a vaguely Russian accent (how prescient!). Gru’s career as a professional evilmonger is threatened by the upstart success of a younger, hipper antihero who has managed to steal an ancient Egyptian pyramid. Vector (Jason Segel) is the dotcom version of Gru, with a nerdy voice, thick-rimmed hipster glasses, and an all-white fortress that looks like the kind of house that Apple would design.
Vector and Gru present competing business models of nefarious success. Vector is the startup guy, inventing his own weapons and showing up to work in an orange tracksuit. Gru is more traditional: he depends on an army of tiny yellow aliens called minions (not kidding) to do his dirty work, and he relies on a very old scientist named Dr. Nefario for R&D. But neither Vector nor Gru can do anything without the support of the Bank of Evil, Formerly Known as Lehman Brothers. Yes, that is actually what it’s called, and yes, the banker’s laptop is made of gold.
In his attempts to one-up Vector, Gru finds himself adopting three orphaned girls to use as pawns in his latest plot. Considering that Despicable Me is disappointingly predictable (it’s not a real Pixar film, after all), it’s not too much of a spoiler to reveal that, in the end, Gru winds up abandoning his villainous ways to become a loving dad.
But what is clearly supposed to be a heartwarming ending is more than a little troubling. Though Gru himself stops stealing, we must assume that the industry of evil will persist. Nowhere in the film does any sort of cape-wearing hero try to stop the bad guys from going about their business. In fact, it’s unclear if a “wholesome” job exists in this world—and, if it does, Gru has no interest in it. Instead, he’s content to stay at home with the kids, leaving his former colleagues at large.
The only antidote to malice that the film offers up is parenthood—it’s what changes Gru’s heart, and it ultimately provides him with more happiness than a moderately successful career as a villain ever could. Oddly, Gru has no trouble adopting the girls from an orphanage as a single dad, even when he pulls out the remarkably creepy line “My heart is like a tooth, and it has a cavity that can be filled only with children.” But while it might be nice to picture a world in which having a family is so universally attainable, there’s still something unsettling about seeing these cute girls not only breaking the “don’t talk to strangers” rule, but also finding that their blind faith in a sinister man pays off as he morphs into a cuddly caretaker.
In the end, Despicable Me leaves viewers with the depressing sense that satisfaction can only be attained by ignoring the bad in the world—whether that means overlooking a man’s skeeviness in the hopes that he’ll turn out unexpectedly kind, or letting the scoundrels keep up their plots while finding personal solace in the playroom. If complacency really is the only way out, I think I’d rather find another animated film to live in. I hear the ocean from Finding Nemo is pretty nice this time of year.