“Despicable Me” (2010)

despicable_me_ver6_xlg Despite having a very clear affection for most animated movies, I failed to see “Despicable Me” until recently. I actually don’t remember it being released in 2010, possibly because I was busy working on moving back to Chicago and trying to emotionally recover from “Toy Story 3.”

Of course, “Despicable Me” is a franchise that seems inescapable, largely due to the Minions. If anything, the near ubiquity of the Minions led me to avoid watching the series until recently. They seemed to be annoying cute little sidekicks, the kind I don’t enjoy in children’s movies. This changed when I saw a trailer for “Despicable Me 3” before a film in the winter–possibly “Moana,” which I still have a lot of affection for. If you were wondering what is a good way to hook me into film series I’ve almost intentionally avoided for six-and-a-half years, promise me there will be an 80s-Themed villain in your movie. After the trailer ended, I turned to my mom and said, “We might need to catch up on these movies.” My willingness to at least give this series a shot increased after watching “Sing,” another Illumination film, which had a cute, fun premise, with a surprising amount of depth.

I finally sat down and watched “Despicable Me” after months of thinking I would one day watch the movies. I didn’t go in with low expectations or hopes of it being the greatest animated film of the year. I just decided to sit back and see how it was, which worked very well when I saw “Sing.”

The movie follows Gru (Steve Carrell), a villain who decides to try to steal the moon after Vector (Jason Segal) steals the Great Pyramid. Due to cost constraints, Gru and his collaborator, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), decide the best way to carry out this scheme is to shrink the moon and then steal it. Following being foiled by Vector, Gru adopts three orphan girls, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), Agnes (Elsie Fisher), to aid in carrying out his plot, but finds himself growing attached to the girls.

The risk you often run when watching most animated family films is finding humor that is too mature, often becoming bawdy, like any of the “Shrek” films. “Despicable Me” operates at a very smart, clever level of a lot of its humor, right down to a sight gag involving Lehman Brothers. Even how showing how Gru is a moderately successful villain by having him mention to the Minions how he stole the miniature versions of famous landmarks from Las Vegas hotels is skillfully done through Carrell’s timing in his voice acting. It’s refreshing to watch a movie that understands good humor doesn’t mean stooping to jokes about cars having diarrhea.

It’s also nice, being someone who recently bemoaned the lack of good villains in children’s movies–although Gaston felt more deranged in the live-action “Beauty and the Beast,” so good on Disney–to see a movie about villains where the characters are outright bad. Gru takes joy in a child’s misery in our first introduction to him, uses a freeze ray a little too freely, and adopts three orphans as a means to the end of his scheme to steal the moon. Vector shows us at multiple moments he doesn’t care for the safety of children, which kept reminding me of a point made about villains in “The Incredibles.” It is possible to write a movie with a villain who is evil and make him not very good. Perhaps because of the concept of writing a film focused on bad guys, this movie succeeds at having villains who both succeed at driving conflict and being good antagonists on both ends of the spectrum. It might be difficult to believe Gru would really switch so fast to liking the trio he adopts, but to jump on this film for plot contrivances seems a bit harsh since the top-grossing animated film of this decade (and currently, all time) has a plot that makes no sense. It is possible to believe Gru, who has issues with his own rough childhood, would turn and feel immense love for the girls.

The Minions also manage to not bog down the movie with their silliness. As I’ve addressed elsewhere on here, it’s very difficult to have a sidekick who doesn’t feel out of place. The Minions largely work because when they’re on screen, they’re there to serve a purpose, which is be minions. They happen to be cute, tiny yellow guys who speak a nonsense language, but they actually have a reason to appear on screen. Perhaps due to their popularity they start to overwhelm the subsequent movies–although they did get their own prequel, which I will look at–but at least here, there’s nothing inherently wrong with them.

There’s nothing high-art or heart-wrenching about “Despicable Me,” but for a film that has likely been written off by many as mindless due to the popularity of one group of characters–one friend questioned my sanity when I told her I liked this movie because of the Minions–it manages to be smart, clever, enjoyable film that looks like it could appeal to everyone in a family.

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“The Black Cauldron” (1985)

In 1985, Disney would release an animated film based on Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydian. It would get the first PG rating to ever be given to a Walt Disney film and it would fail at the box office. The film was entitled The Black Cauldron and is generally regarded as the darkest and most frightening of Disney’s films.

In hindsight, The Black Cauldron seems like it might be Disney’s underrated film. Yes, it’s a dark children’s movie, but in terms of themes it somehow manages to feel less dark than The Hunchback of Notre Dame and manages to feel very cohesive with the tone and world due to be based off of a fantasy series.

The Black Cauldron follows Taran (Grant Bardsley), an assistant pig keeper, who learns from a vision from the pig Hen Wen that The Horned King (John Hurt) is searching for the Black Cauldron to raise an army of undead soldiers, the Cauldron-born. Taran is trusted with taking care of Hen Wen, but due to Taran’s day dreams of being a warrior, he loses track of the pig. While searching for Hen Wen, he meets a creature named Gurgi (John Byner). Taran’s searching leads him to the Horned King’s castle, where the pig is being held captive. The pig escapes and Taran is captured. While in the dungeon, he meets Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan), who has also been captured, grabs an awesome magic sword and helps a bard named Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne) escape. The trio then decides to find Hen Wen and the Black Cauldron, the latter of which they intend to destroy.

This film, directed by Ted Berman and Richard Rich–Rich went on to direct The Swan Princess and its sequels as well as The King and I–looks very much like a classic Disney film in terms of the character design. If someone isn’t looking closely, they could mistake Princess Eilonwy for Princess Aurora when she’s living in the forest. There’s also great coloring in this filming, such as shades of green that highlight areas of the Horned King’s castle as Taran approaches the building for the first time.

Although I can’t criticize the film in relation to its source material as I’ve never read that series, I can say that pretty much everything in the film works because it is set in a mystical fantasy world. From the presence of the adorable Fair Folk that are very fairy-like to vision-granting pigs to witches to the very presence of Gurgi, a talking creature that looks like a dog, but also like a small human, this all works because of the world of the film, which is easy to buy into and believe in this film.

Gurgi, meanwhile, serves as this film’s Cute Little Animal Sidekick. At first, Gurgi comes across as an annoying character thrown in to make the film cuter for kids, but as the film goes on, it becomes more clear that Gurgi is as important in this film as the Horned King or Taran. More importantly, Gurgi sacrifices himself to save the world, which is something that most Cute Little Animal Sidekicks would not do. And unlike most Cute Little Animal Sidekicks, Gurgi is not obnoxious or wisecracking, he’s simply a cute creature that talks in a muffled tone.

As for the violence, the violence in The Black Cauldron is no worse than what I’ve seen in some episodes of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, which is rated TV-PG. That being said, if you’re a parent who won’t let your children watch Adventure Time, then it might be best to not let them watch The Black Cauldron for a while. On another note, while I’m all for allowing children to watch potentially scary movies, I remember being a bit bored by The Black Cauldron as a child. Perhaps as an adult the movie is easier to appreciate because it’s easier to follow the plot. It still remains that The Black Cauldron is an underrated Disney film that will probably never get its deserved recognition.