Thursday, March 21, 2013

Your minions serve your beck and call...

A few months ago I wrote an essay reviewing the worldview of the film 'Despicable Me' from a Christian perspective. It apparently missed the mark in terms of the essay requirements but nonetheless I would be interested in peoples thoughts...

 The World of “Despicable Me‟

Despicable Me is a 2010 animated film with the tagline “superbad, superdad”. It is the first feature length computer animation by universal studios, but follows after the enormous successes of Pixar and Disney in this genre. It is written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio based on a short story and is deliberately aimed at both adults and children. The film itself is a story of one man’s life being changed by adopting three children. 

The film opens with the villain Gru, the film’s protagonist, learning that the great pyramid has been stolen by a new super-villain, now regarded as the best. In response Gru gathers together his minions; small yellow creatures who both work for but also like him, and outlines his plan to fulfill his ambition to steal the moon. When Gru finds the „shrink-ray‟ has already been stolen by new villain Vector he attempts to break into his base but is defeated by booby-traps. He then sees three girls selling cookies walk straight into the base and so decides to adopt them.

Using them to gain access, Gru steals the shrink-ray and initially plans to abandon the girls, however over the course of time becomes attached to them. Realising Gru is distracted from the plan his associate, Dr Nefario, arranges for the girls to be returned to the orphanage before Gru successfully shrinks and steals the moon. However he immediately realises that is not what he wants anymore and exchanges it to try and free the girls, now kidnapped by Vector in vengeance. Gru eventually successfully defeats Vector, rescues the girls and the film ends with him adopting them permanently.

The World behind “Despicable Me‟

The film follows the familiar story line of the protagonist doing something with one intention but ending up with something completely different happening. When Gru adopts the children it is purely for his own gain and even after he begins to change he is still willing to give them up in order to fulfill his dream. The film quickly shows however that he is being changed so that what he has been pursuing for years will no longer satisfy him.

Despicable Me
The film also follows the classic plot of setting up many unhappy situations that are all ultimately resolved by the climax of the film. Gru is set on the path to being a villain by his craving for approval from his mother, shown in flashbacks to constantly ignore or belittle him. The three girls are orphans, harshly treated by the woman in charge of the orphanage, and are looking for someone to love and take care of them. Meanwhile Vector is set up as the "bad guy‟ (although he is actually the same as Gru, with the same ambition) who must be defeated whilst the minions are made happy by Gru being happy. By the end of the film Gru has adopted the girls winning his mother’s approval as a good father, whilst vector is stranded on the moon, giving the happy ending we want. 

As previously mentioned the film sets up Gru as the hero, when in fact he is shown to be an uncaring and selfish man, before being changed, a liar and a thief. He is basically the same in character as Vector (both even shown as having unpleasable parents) but in the film he is the hero. The wrong things that Gru does are portrayed as good and it is important that he succeeds.

Things are also shown in the film world to be acceptable if they are funny or entertaining. Although partly in response to the young audience nearly all the film’s violence is shown to have no lasting effects such as Gru’s multiple clashes with vectors security. It seems as though nothing is actually capable of doing harm as Gru, Vector and the minions are variously hit with missiles but having been blown up carry on as before, unharmed. 

The film’s overall aim is to show that success and happiness are the same thing. When their plans are failing Gru is naturally unhappy but this is shown to affect the girls, who try to help him as well as the minions who are, essentially just his employees, yet inconsolable.

Finally the film explains that everything is the way it is, blaming Gru’s despicable character and life of crime on being unloved as a child. As he softens through the film he is at one point unable to show the love that he never received, because he doesn’t know how. In a world where everything has cause and effect, Gru is absolved from blame as, even now, he is just trying to gain his mother’s approval.

The World in front of “Despicable Me‟

Next we move on to see how the film attempts to make us, as the audience, think. At the end of the film we are shown that everything is solved and we can be happy. Looking closer though this is not the case and even if it were this is not how it works in the real world. We are told that the main issue is resolved; Gru defeats Vector and saves the girls, so now there are no more problems. Happy endings are possible and we are encouraged to pursue them and our own happiness.

We are also led to view bad things as acceptable provided they are done by the „good guy‟. Throughout the film we are encouraged to want Gru to succeed, because of how the situation is set up. Gru is clearly the hero and so we empathise with him, feeling his frustrations and wanting him to win, despite the fact that most of what he does is evil. “The repeated theme is that being bad is not so bad”

The film also seeks to change what we value as Gru becoming the parent the girls need is the unintended outcome for him. Although other outcomes could include; stopping both villains, or Gru’s evil ways being reformed, we ignore those aspects provided that he saves the children. Although the theft of the moon ultimately fails, no effort is made to show previous wrong being undone or an intention to change in the future. Contrast this with our potential outrage to an alternative ending where Gru did not save or adopt the children (as true to his original character) and the film’s values are easy to see.
Gru's minions are awesome - I want some!

The non-approval of his mother as the reason for Gru’s character feeds into our idea that nothing is our fault but rather the fault of the world around us. The argument that Gru is simply behaving in response to his upbringing and therefore his flaws are not his fault can be readily transplanted into our lives as we are encouraged to shift any blame or fault from ourselves.

Finally the film portrays the message that violence and confrontation is OK provided that no-one gets hurt. It goes to great lengths to show that whatever happens to the characters they are never physically hurt in any way and so we are encouraged to think that what happens to them is acceptable. Although much of the violence is unbelievable, there are some realistic acts viewed as funny and entertaining.

The Uber-text of “Despicable Me‟

In spite of the overall nature of the film there are some „good‟ themes which reflect the nature of God and of his creation. There is genuine love between Gru and the girls, as well as the minions. When Gru despairs at not having the money to complete his plan, the girls offer him their savings, at which point the minions also offer what they have. Although the aim may not be good, the willingness to help and to serve each other out of love is exemplified by the relationships between the characters through the film they become a family.

We also see the problem with pursuing self-serving goals, particularly highlighted when Gru has the moon in his hands (having shrunk it) before being reminded of the girls dance recital (which he had missed in order to complete his plan). Despite having the thing he craved for so long, Gru realises that this cannot fulfill him, and that he needs other people to be happy. This theme is however undermined by making the children able to do this whereas in a fallen reality no-one else can. The character's desire for love and acceptance rings true for all of us, but is again undermined as the film suggests it can be achieved.

Amongst the bad views is the idea that people can do bad things without negative consequences. The film shows no concept of moral right or wrong, as Gru's actions are never shown to be bad. The only time his actions are questioned is regarding the children and as he eventually does the ‟right thing‟ for them he ends the film as a perfect character. This is immediately contrary to what we know of the world as no-one is in this situation, even if they could change their character to be perfect from now on.

The film’s basic worldview could be summarised as a "no-one else matters‟ view. As the film is shown from Gru’s perspective we see that everything he does is self-serving, even towards the end where his actions benefit the girls, the focus is on him. At the end he tells the girls a bedtime story of how they came into his life, irritated and frustrated him but finally changed his heart. Gru ends the film by being happy, not in the way he intended at the beginning, but still by his own doing.

The main idol in the film is redemption, specifically through parenthood, shown by the fact that Gru is portrayed as the finished article once he accepts and loves the girls. The clear message is that redemption is possible, but more importantly, possible by us doing the right thing. Not only is this redemption within our power, it is shown as being able to outweigh massive „wrong‟ because of the form it takes. As everything negative about Gru’s character is blamed on his upbringing, he is redeemed by doing the right thing for the children. This idea is seen in many ways in society today as parenthood is viewed as able to redeem anyone in the same way it does here.

Redemption is reinforced by Gru finally receiving his mother’s praise for being a good parent and we are left with a picture of everyone being loved and accepted and all the problems of life gone.

The issue this leaves us with is that of "what now?" Gru the same person he was, just nice to the children yet cannot continue as a villain without undoing that work of redemption. The films ends with the other issues swept under the carpet and not dealt with as Gru is so transformed by this one change that nothing else he did or does matters.


This light-hearted entertaining film in many ways tries to show good triumphing over evil and a cold man changed by loving three children is definitely worth watching. The danger comes, as with many films, if we end up viewing situations and characters in the way the film portrays them rather than as they actually are. When the film crosses the line of challenging what God and the Bible tells us about human nature and the world, then we must be careful not to be drawn into believing what its characters tells us will achieve the things we also desire.