I was 9 when “Despicable Me” first came out. I remember seeing it in theaters with every member of the big extended family I was lucky to grow up with, from the youngest at age 5 to the oldest of the grandparents. It breaks my heart that today, a film so near and dear to my heart seems to be known first and foremost for the minions.
Now, I don’t have any personal vendetta against the minions. They’re great comic relief and a creatively unique addition to the art world and the world of family animation. Having a sidekick is old news. Having dozens of small aliens who wear overalls, obey your every whim without question or conflict, and speak only gibberish (which I’ve been informed is Minionese)? This is new. But that’s all the minions are good for, and over-relying on them has transformed the Despicable Me franchise into a relic of the past, trying desperately to stay relevant. The best thing about “Despicable Me” was never the minions, or Margo (Miranda Cosgrove, “iCarly”), Edith (Dana Gaier, “Ernesto’s Manifesto”) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher, “Eighth Grade”), however cute they might be — it was Gru (Steve Carell, “The Office”).
I was eventually able to quote catchphrases from the film in a perfect imitation of Carrell’s pseudo-Russian accent at the dinner table, and, to this day, a carefully timed rendition of “the small one from Las Vegas” can vaporize tension in the room, a testament to the perfection of the writing and the performance by Carrell. Gru is perfectly written, performed and developed, and it’s falling for him as he falls for the girls that makes you fall for the film.
Classic heroes are boring. You have no real reason to love them, but you’re encouraged to root for them anyway because they represent the all-important, but ultimately two-dimensional, “good.” And I might argue (and have argued) that main characters who are pure villains (see Dexter (Michael C. Hall, “Kill Your Darlings”), Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley, “Gossip Girl”), etc.) can be dangerous. But nothing steals your heart like watching a villain (and was he really ever a villain at all?) become something more — not a hero, but a person who wants to love and be loved so much that they’ll put everything else aside. Essentially, Gru realizes the only thing he really wants to be is a dad.
Like in real life, it happens gradually, in montages (admittedly less realistic) and little moments. Casual viewers might say it’s their day at the amusement park that changes everything, where Gru (initially a begrudging attendee hoping to abandon his adopted kids there) finds himself sacrificing his wants and needs to have fun. But, as a real fan, I know it’s much more than that. It’s the moment Agnes invites him to the girls’ dance recital, slipping a tiny pink ticket into his oversized hand. It’s the moment that Gru blows up the laser play station when its underpaid attendant (seriously, why did he care so much?) stands between it and Agnes’ famed fluffy unicorn. It’s the moment that the girls pull together every nickel they have into a pink piggy bank in the hopes it’s enough to save him and his business. It’s the moment he cooks pancakes for them in special shapes. It’s the moment he reads them a special edition of “Three Little Kittens.” And, of course, it’s the moment that he’s willing to risk everything to save them. Gru has in spades what so many main characters lack: character development, and a strong one at that. Gru defies the binaries of hero and villain, reminding us that (at least in meticulously produced works of art) a “villain” might just be a person looking for love who teeters on the very verge of ascension.
“Despicable Me” is a reminder of my dad and all the loved ones I saw the film with for the very first time. When I insert a Gru impression into conversation it’s to get a laugh, sure, but also to remind my family that, like Gru, I will always put them first. Here’s to you.
TV Beat Editor Emmy Snyder can be reached at email@example.com.