Despicable Me(ovie)

One of the more popular movies out right now (it’s the summer of 2010, July) is Despicable Me. Spoilers coming up in the article and no doubtedly in the comments (if there are any). So, you have your warning.

Despicable Me is about a Villian in an alternate CGI world. Unfortunately, he’s being one-upped by Vector, the new villian on the block who spectacularly stole a pyramid in Egypt. Gru, the main character, decides to steal the moon to top Vector. Gru steals a shrink ray gun from an vaguely Chinese lab in an Asian-like country, only to have it stolen by Vector. Now, in order to get a loan from a Villian bank, he has to steal the shrink ray back.

This is where the story “takes off”. Gru sees a trio of little girls gain access into Vector’s lair because they are selling cookies. They’re orphans and Miss Hattie,  the cruel headmistress of the orphanage forces them to sell cookies, and if they don’t make their quota, they get put in The Box. It’s literally a cardboard box, but it’s not funny. Gru goes in, adopts the girls as a sure-fire way to get into Vector’s lair, but along the way, he starts falling in love with them. You also learn that his mother has ignored all his childhood achievements, and that’s why he turned to villiany-to get the attention and a sense of accomplishment.

Gru’s villian-partner Dr. Nefario doesn’t like how he’s become distracted, and calls the orphanage and has the three girls taken back. Hijinks ensue with Gru stealing the moon, trying to make to the girls’ dance recital in time, and then has to get them back from Vector, who now wants the moon from Gru.

Despicable Me had its moments-there are a crowd of side-kick creatures who are bound to have their own series in the near future (but like the Smurfs, the females don’t exist). And Gru evolves in a sort-of sympathetic character. He’s a bumbler, and you can’t take him seriously.

My problem is with the role of the three little girls, Margot, Edith and Agnes. Gru’s and Vector’s and Dr. Nefario’s and the bank’s villiany is acknowledged and expressed.  While we’re shown the horrible conditions the girls live under, that is never acknowledged, not even by them. They’re abused, yet it’s played for laughs-given that this is a children’s movie (?isit?) that’s expected, but it has slid over into tasteless territory. Stealing a pyramid? Funny. Putting little girls in boxes in imitation of POW torture? Not funny at all.

The girls are sad when they’re booted back to the orphanage with the abusive head of the orphanage–but never express too much anger about it. Nor does Miss Hattie ever get HER punishment, and there’s not any thought about the other orphans in her orphanage, as some sort of wrap up in the plot. Gru rescues the girls from Vector-but not the orphanage and evil-but-”nice” Miss Hattie. Notice that the rescue is from HIS adversary, but not theirs?

Then there’s Gru’s Mom, voiced by Julie Andrews. The only time she gives Gru her approval is when she sees he’s actually made himself into an attentive parent, which is what she was emphatically not. It’s one of the punchlines-the parent willfully ignoring their own neglectfulness and incompetence, praising their child for qualities they didn’t possess, yet take credit for.

So the thesis of this movie is, if you’re a mother, you’re at fault for your adult child’s behavior because you were neglectful or not Mom enough. If you’re not the mother, you are cruel and hate children, and are put in charge and yet, are never called upon your abusive practices. If you’re a little girl, you’re the way a grown man can man-up and find his softer feelings, and that’s about it. Your needs are fulfilled as soon as he loves you. But if you’re a woman, and you’re in a parental role, you suck royally.

And just as in Up with the dog pack, the lack of female minions is a real trend. These are alien looking tubey creatures, so it’s possible they reproduce via parthenogenesis, or are both sexes and don’t look it. I suppose the filmmakers thought there were villianesses enough in the orphanage headmistress and Gru’s mother. She doesn’t even have her own name!

I’m starting to wonder why I paid money to see this movie. Oh, right: I have two children, and they liked it. I’m disliking it more and more.

Comments

  1. zgeycp says

    I hadn’t thought of the movie this way, and since the first defenses I can think of are “It’s not worse than most Hollywood fare,” “At least the girls had personalities!” and “I liked it,” I think I need to acknowledge my privilege and concede your points.

    Comeuppance for Miss Hattie would have been nice – hell, the audience would have cheered – and a ‘quick fix’ for the mother subplot would have been to show child-Gru as predisposed to villainy. I liked the girls, I liked that they stood up to Gru and I liked that they were just as enthusiastic about blowing things up as him, but they could have gotten more to do – I miss the brilliant, resourceful orphans of the Lemony Snicket books.

    Still, I’m sure the inevitable sequel will give the girls a more active role – Gru’s already had his character arc and they’ll be older and more experienced. If the trailer shows them getting kidnapped instead then I may just save my money.

    I think the more dangerous (and more obvious) message of these movies is the idea that children can transform anyone (any man?) into a great parent. I guess the girls are used to fending for themselves after the orphanage but parenthood is not easy and not for everyone and people (who believe this message?) screw it up all the time.

  2. Maria says

    I haven’t seen it yet, but from what you’re saying, its treatment of child abuse sounds really similar to the Madea and Big Mama’s House kinda thing, where both the abuser and the child’s pain are meant to be funny. :-/

  3. says

    @zgeycp, that is a very familiar and overworked trope in movies, books, Romance novels, you name it: the love of a good woman will change an abusive/bad boy-man and turn him around into a desirable mate/father/brother figure. In this movie, of course, it’s three little girls instead of a romantic love interest, but that’s inconsequential to the trope.

    You’re correct. It’s a belief that battered women and children are convinced to live out with their (often, but not always) male abusers. If they do what the abuser wants, the abuser will change and everything will be all better.

    *sighs* Wow, the levels of horribleness in this movie sink lower and lower.

    There is a second movie in development hell, if IMDB is correct. In my experience, I don’t think the role of the girls will be changed much from this movie to the next. I think the next movie will do something about Gru’s missing father figure (you’ll note his father wasn’t shown as being around) and those supercute little yellow blobby side-kicks.

    • zgeycp says

      This is probably privilege talking, but I still enjoyed the movie – mostly because the comic timing was good and the animation was lively, better than any animated movie I’ve seen in a while.

      It’s still problematic – the ‘mother’ figures exist mostly to make Gru look good by comparison, and the parenting trope bugs me for the reasons we’ve discussed – but the issues feel like just another drop in the Hollywood bucket? I wouldn’t call it ‘despicable’ in a world where 13 year-olds are watching Family Guy and Crank.

      Or am I defending the movie just because I had fun? I don’t know. I’ve been reading Hathor for a few months but this is my first time commenting and I’m terrified right now, because I’m probably the most privileged person I know and people here aren’t afraid to call out bullshit and apologism when they hear it.

      Here’s a question inspired by the latest Doctor Who post at Overthinking It: how would you ‘fix’ the movie?

      • says

        That’s what this whole site is all about. But I’m not here to *fix* a movie that’s already out.

        Try reading the review of UP, by Pixar. Comments there might address your question.

          • Maria says

            You know, you also answered your own question in your first post…

            “Comeuppance for Miss Hattie would have been nice – hell, the audience would have cheered – and a ‘quick fix’ for the mother subplot would have been to show child-Gru as predisposed to villainy.”

          • zgeycp says

            @Maria

            Sure, but I doubt my ideas would solve every issue or meet with universal approval. I just thought it could be a fun thought exercise.

            The ‘reply’ button on your post isn’t working for me for some reason. Does that happen after a certain number of posts in a thread?

          • says

            The Reply button disappears because you’ve maxed out nesting. Sorry – I mean, I can set it to 10 levels, but the comments would be unreadable by then, and people would still want more levels, the way conversations on this site go. :D

      • says

        One of our philosophies around here is: it’s okay to enjoy something that’s problematic. It’s just not okay to go into hostile denial about it having any issues, as some fans tend to do. :)

        Maybe you enjoyed it because it has some good points aside from its issues? Some of my favorite fictions are seriously problematic, but they have awesome characters or stories in and around all those problems.

  4. Pipenta says

    The trailers didn’t beckon. I wasn’t tempted for a moment. But as for the review, I couldn’t get past villian.

  5. Quib says

    In my view Gru’s transition from villain to parent was much more of an internal conflict than driven by the girls. The “love makes you good” theme was present and problematic, but it’s Gru that concedes to the girls’ demands, and Margo remains strong willed and resists his authority.

    I did like the story telling, and I thought the movie ended with a lot of potential, and a lot of ideas left to expand on.

    While stopping Miss Hattie would have been good, I don’t think comeuppance for her would have added much, and punishment for false mother figures is itself something of a tired trope (old school fairy tales mostly). It is troubling that both the adult females are such negative figures,but Gru learning to move beyond his mothers influence and help the girls out of a similar situation seems like a positive message.

    Another way to look at Gru’s mother is as a demonstration that not everyone who has a child has the capacity to raise one. An aspect I thought was interesting was the presentation of non-traditional families. The girls’ biological parents are never mentioned, and while the girls initially hope for a new mom and dad, they don’t show a need for, or a particular attachment to such an arrangement. Similarly, (if I remember correctly)Gru’s father, or need for one, is never shown or alluded to. It’s even parodied a bit, when the 3 minions disguise themselves as a “mom”, “dad” and “baby” for their trip to the store. They play with adopting the human identities, and are shown still in costume later in the movie.

    • zgeycp says

      I really like your interpretation, but does he actually stop being a villain? I don’t think that was ever implied.

    • Julie says

      The trope of the Wicked Mother going way back to myth and fairy tales is tired and olde, while the other tropes are just fine to use and aren’t tired? I dunno. If they’re using one set of tropes why not give the rest of the audience some satisfaction of twisting the trope, or getting justice for the little girls (aside from a Gru rescue)? Why the one and not the other?

      • Quib says

        One’s not better than the other, I just don’t think more would have improved the movie. There’s also no punishment for Mr. Perkins, Gru,and Vector getting himself stranded on the Moon was more of a consequence of the fight than intentional retribution. While unusual for a childrens’ film, karmic punishment just wasn’t built in. Doing something for the girls still in the orphanage definitely would be a nice addition, but I don’t see injury for Miss Hattie benefiting the 3 girls or the story. I think the girls needing to see Miss Hattie punished before being able to move on and be happy would have been a detriment.

  6. Brand Robins says

    I am seriously bummed by this review.

    I was really looking forward to this movie, and was hoping for something like the villain version of The Incredibles.

    So while I might still get some of that, it seems the strong female roles and more subtle messages will be absent.

    Alas.

  7. says

    Try seeing it during a matinee, or at a cheap movie theater. It could be that you might not agree with me; Quib has some good points that I didn’t cover in the review (there’s limited space in a review) about family as it is in the movie.

    It DOES have plenty of cute moments, and there is a scene that parallels an earlier scene in the movie of Gru reading a book he wrote to the girls that had me tearing up. It’s not one of my favorites, but there is some good stuff in it.

  8. Alara Rogers says

    You know, I strongly disagree about this.

    When I saw the movie, the thing that really impressed me, *given* that I read this website and am paying a lot of attention to the role (and lack thereof) of women or girls in movies… is that the girls are POV characters (unlike, say, Dorie in Finding Nemo, there are many scenes from the girls’ point of view), they have agency (their desire to shape Gru into a father figure drives the plot, and they stand up for what they want, frequently), and they are the “normal” characters in the story, the audience viewpoint perspective (Gru is a weird supervillain, but when we’re in his perspective, his life is normalized; it’s when we switch to the girls’ POV that we’re reminded of how *we* would perceive Gru if we were there.) And because there are three of them, with a variety of personalities, the movie passes the Bechdel test in a *major* way. How many other animated films for children do?

    The role of Gru’s mother is problematic, of course. But think of how many movies there are where a man tries to pursue the love of a toxic father, and eventually, proves himself worthy of his father’s love. Toxic mothers are usually presented as wholly unsympathetic (like Miss Hattie), and the way the main character triumphs over a toxic mother is to free himself from her and his need for her love. Whereas the relationship with a toxic father is generally resolved by winning the father’s love and respect. In this area, Gru’s mom behaves more like a toxic father in fiction… he *does* win her over at the end (primarily by providing her with cute granddaughters, but then, she presents to the granddaughters as a loving grandmother at the end, so she ceases to be a toxic mother figure.)

    Child abuse being funny is a staple of children’s fiction. I mean, Lemony Snicket? Roald Dahl? Even Harry Potter doesn’t treat Harry’s abuse at the hands of the Dursleys nearly as seriously as it would be in real life.

    I was blown away, when I saw the movie, at how much *less* non-feminist it was than I expect from animated children’s movies. I mean, in comparison, Toy Story 3 had Jessie, Barbie and Mrs. Potato Head, who all barely talk to one another, and *none* of them are major plot drivers to the extent that the girls in Despicable Me are.

    It is annoying that the minions are all male and so is Dr. Nefario and so is the banker and so is Vector. (Although Vector being female would have fallen into the trap of “the only adult female is the antagonist”, and the banker being a woman would have been another toxic mother… but Dr. Nefario could have been an old woman, and the minions definitely should have been at least a third visibly female, if not half. I mean, it’s annoying to have long eyelashes on every female character in a cartoon to signify that they are female, but given that these beings are stylized cylinders with high-pitched voices and their “masculine” dress is pretty much expected from the work they do, I’d have accepted long eyelashes on minions who otherwise looked just like other minions.) But seriously, when was the last time you saw a children’s cartoon in 3D animation where there were *three* female characters whose scenes of talking to each other take up a third of the movie?

    The perfect is not the enemy of the good. Despicable Me could have been better from a feminist perspective, certainly, but I haven’t seen a computer animated children’s movie in ten years (or, honestly, ever) that’s *as* good as it is.

    • says

      Ya know… you say you strongly disagree with the review, but then you describe the movie as “how much *less* non-feminist it was than I expect from animated children’s movies” and “but I haven’t seen a computer animated children’s movie in ten years (or, honestly, ever) that’s *as* good as it is.” I’m finding that extremely depressing, because it’s like, is that all we have a right to expect? Bechdel test passing and women having agency? To me, those are the bare minimum requirements, not the end goal.

      I’m not trying to harsh your squee at all. Your perspective is valid, as is everyone else’s who saw it. I’m just saying.

      • Alara Rogers says

        No, I get you. I, too, am sad that I *have* to be looking at a movie that basically ripped off Carmen Sandiego’s shtick without even acknowledging her in a cameo, had an all-male organization that becomes “kinder and nicer” when girls show up, and aside from the girls had only toxic mothers for female characters, and be thinking “This is so awesome because it’s not nearly as awful as everything else!”

        But at the same time… baby steps. I can’t say “this is terrible” when, in fact, it’s the best thing out there in its genre (at least as far as viewing a movie from a feminist perspective… Toy Story 3 was a better *movie*, but Despicable Me is the most female-friendly movie I’ve seen in the CGI animated kids’ movie category.) You have to acknowledge when something is at least moving in the *direction* you want to go… and I felt that this review totally ignored the fact that, yes, multiple scenes in a children’s CG movie from the perspective of a group of girls, where the girls have relationships with each other and conversations with each other, is *rare*, and something we should be celebrating when it happens even as we mourn the fact that we *have* to celebrate it — we should be able to take it for granted. But we can’t.

        • says

          Hmm, I was with you until the last sentence. There is no “should be celebrating” – what you want to celebrate is your choice, and what someone else wants to celebrate is theirs.

    • jennygadget says

      Just fyi, bc kidlit is my hobby:

      “Child abuse being funny is a staple of children’s fiction. I mean, Lemony Snicket? Roald Dahl? Even Harry Potter doesn’t treat Harry’s abuse at the hands of the Dursleys nearly as seriously as it would be in real life.”

      Child abuse being funny is a staple of middle grade fiction, not stories for children in general. It doesn’t really work well as a joke for young children because younger and older children view the adults that are responsible for their care differently. Much of the point of making child abuse a joke is to make a joke out of the guardians. Each of those stories you mention? That’s what they do. This is something that nearly teens delight in, but it’s not something that makes as much sense or appeals to children that are still at the age where they think their parents know everything.

      My impression of the movie is that it is meant mostly for younger children. But, well, I haven’t seen it so I could certainly be wrong about that.

      • Alara Rogers says

        Oh, it’s definitely middle grade. The main character is a supervillain, and some of the jokes depend on finding really scary things to be funny, which isn’t nearly as much a staple of young child fiction as mid-grade. I mean, my small ones liked it fine (the four year old got scared, but she was fine by the end), but my middle schoolers got a lot more of the jokes.

        • jennygadget says

          ah, now that’s interesting, because the marketing I saw definitely made it look like it was more for little kids.

          (it always annoys me when they do that)

          • Brand Robins says

            Having worked in marketing for elementary school aged kids I can tell you that most folks I worked with had a very shaky understanding of the formative differences between various ages of children.

            A lot of stuff gets marketed sloppily in the area because (outside specialist shops like children’s book publishers) folks don’t actually know who they’re supposed to be marketing to.

  9. Anemone says

    Same screenwriter as for Horton Hears a Who. Perhaps he took criticism of that film to heart and gave the girls more agency? Not sure how much of it can be credited to the screenwriter versus the person who gets credit for the story, though.

    Haven’t seen it, don’t want to. Maybe free from the library some day.

  10. says

    Tiktaalik:
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