Even though Han Solo basically broke the mold more than three decades ago, antiheroes have continued to be a tough sell to moviegoers. As complicated as personalities are in real life, we seem to like our good guys good and bad guys bad, and seldom if ever do the two meet, or even advance toward some sort of middle ground. Suffice it to say this is an even tougher challenge where kids' or kid-friendly movies are concerned; parents might embrace a bit of complexity at the cinema, but preteens can be particularly oblivious to shades of grey, and don't frequently find themselves rooting for the real hero to lose. As such, it's no overstatement to say the new animated film Despicable Me has an uphill battle en route to the hearts and minds of mainstream audiences.
Having recently previewed several scenes from the forthcoming film, however, it would appear that despicable is anything but the right word to describe Gru, its main character. Universal recently invited Cinematical to join a coterie of reporters at the Santa Monica production offices of Illumination Entertainment for a special screening of scenes from the film, as well as an opportunity to chat with producer Chris Meledandri. What we saw were the early stages of one of this summer's almost predestined destination movies for family audiences, which is sure to hold at least a little interest from older audiences thanks to a voice cast that includes contemporary comedy mainstays like Steve Carell, Russell Brand, and Jason Segel.
"It's safe to root for someone to steal the moon," Meledandri explains when asked whether audiences will want this super-villain to stay villainous.
"Very early on you see that this guy may be a little bit past his prime, and that this spoiled-brat son of this banker is coming up behind him and they're going to whip the ground out from beneath him. So you do see his vulnerability and hopefully root for him. Now at a certain point, though, he reaches a place where that becomes in direct conflict with responsibility for these girls, and that's where things break down."
The first scene we saw contained the same footage as the theatrical teaser, in which a group of tourists arrives at an Egyptian pyramid only to discover that it was stolen and replaced with a life-sized, inflatable double. This screening was in fact the first time I'd seen any footage from the film, and while it scarcely hints at the actual plot of Despicable Me, it sets the tone and energy level of the film: like the production studio's previous efforts, which included Horton Hears a Who and Robots, there's a mischievous sort of whimsy that feel aimed squarely at family audiences, but with vaguely subversive undertones for grown-ups.
My speculation of the rest of the film's tone was further confirmed when Gru (Steve Carell) is introduced. A Dr. Evil-style overplanner with ridiculously elaborate designs, he approaches a small child whose ice cream falls on the ground, blows up a balloon animal to cheer him up, and then unceremoniously pops it as the kid nuzzles the animated latex. He then jumps into a ridiculously impractical, rocket-powered vehicle and jets past other cars – belching pollution as he roars down the street – in order to get to his house, a looming, anachronistic mansion that sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise bland suburban neighborhood.
Three shorter scenes follow, including two in which we actually see Gru softening if only by a matter of degrees during his time with the three little girls. (Preserving some of the movie's mystery, Meledandri didn't explain why he cuddles up with the little ladies.) In one of them, he takes the girls to an amusement park, and after a perilous ride on a roller coaster, the girls opt to play a booth game where they have to shoot at targets with toy pistols. When the operator refuses to give the girls a prize when one of them wins, Gru pulls out a pistol of his own that virtually vaporizes the entire booth, to which the girls respond with shocking enthusiasm.
Meledandri explained that he and the rest of the filmmakers had many discussions about how dastardly Gru's deeds could be and preserve a sense of sympathy from the audience. "It definitely becomes something that you end up talking a lot about," Meledandri admitted. "The team talks a lot about it, and I'd say this was an unusual film because so much of what was storyboarded ended up going into the film. I'd say the area where the most storyboards were done relative to the scenes in the movie was in this area – what constitutes going too far."
"Even now, you're shaving frames," he continued. "And I don't know if five frames makes the difference, but you raise something that's a concern."
The final two scenes reveal Gru's opponent, Vector, an attention-deficient teenager who distractedly plays Wii while defending his fortress-like home from Gru's infiltration, and show more of the personality of the girls, who rouse from their (literal) bombshell beds to ask for a bedtime story. In the former, Gru becomes a Wile E. Coyote to Vector's Roadrunner – a hapless victim to his opponent's effortlessly superior faculties; in the latter, he's helpless to resist the young girls' charms as they ask him to tell the story of three little kittens, which not only provides them a comfortable metaphor for themselves but creates some self-identification for Gru. In both cases, the character becomes more multi-dimensional, and therefore more relatable, which may ultimately prove to be the secret of this film's despicable success.
"You saw a scene and he's implying that he's going to kill a guy's dog," Meledandri observes as one of perhaps the most obvious examples of Gru's casual villainy. "But if you don't do things like that then you really haven't told the story. And this character, although he doesn't become a goody two-shoes, he changes in a way that certainly he never expected to change."