Will Families Want a Villain as a Protagonist?: A Look at 'Despicable Me'

on July 08, 2010

despicablemefeature.pngThe star of Despicable Me, the new 3-D animated feature opening Friday, is neither cute nor cuddly.

Gru is a self-professed villain, in fact, the kind of guy that should be hunted by the hero. Instead, he's the star attraction as voiced by Steve Carell.

The character wants to dominate the super-villain market, and he adopts a trio of adorable children to gain access to his main competitor's lair.

But are audiences supposed to root for such a despicable fella? And what does that say about studio's expectations of audiences today?

Animated films routinely try to please both older and younger audiences, but is this the latest sign of just how complex animated fare must be to do just that?

After all, the biggest animated film last year made us cheer on a cranky senior citizen who ripped his entire home "Up" off the ground to escape reality.

Jeremy Parsons, "Hollywood Dailies" correspondent and frequent host of Reelzchannel's "Spotlight" show, says animated filmmakers know they can't keep churning out fluffy fairy tales.

"It seems reasonable to attempt to beef it up, to broaden the appeal" of the storytelling, Parsons says. "How many times can you do a simple kids movie and animate it?"

Today's animated films lure children into theaters as if by a tractor beam device. It's rare that these films will tank at the box office.

But keeping the target audience's parents entertained is another matter, Parsons says. So filmmakers use a dual-edged approach to delight the masses.

For Despicable Me, that means hiring vocal talent like Carell and Jason Segel, two actors know for comedies that appeal to adults.

Parents can see a name like Segel on the marquee and think "What's he doing in a kids' movie? If that guy's in it, it must have some biting humor," he says.

Delivering an animated film with a villain at its core isn't a stretch these days. But creating a film that isn't a sequel or reboot complicates matters for the film's box office projections, he says.

It doesn't help that Despicable Me's early trailers kept the storyline a secret.

"They're marketing a character nobody knows. It's a little muddy," he says. "There's no built-in audience."

"It'll be interesting to see how this turns out. From an advertising perspective, it's certainly been a challenge. This is out of left field," he says, noting more recent ads have focused on the film‘s lovable Minions characters.

Film historian Lance Duerfahrd of Purdue University thinks complicated animated fare like Despicable Me simply reflects reality.

"I think it's clear that animated characters are becoming more and more the true pictures of our everyday world," Duerfahrd says. "What's a more accurate picture of the American family, The Simpsons or Two and a Half Men?"

Supervillains don't run wild in real life, but some of Gru's dastardly behavior will strike a chord with movie audiences. In one scene, Gru uses a freeze ray gun to cut in line at Starbucks.

"Isn't that what we'd all use it for?" he asks.

Tags: Despicable Me, Steve Carell

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