I met my husband Tony on a blind date during which we mostly talked about our dads. It didn’t strike me as strange, how quickly we found common ground via our wine-making, garden-tending, hands-on fathers whom we both liked so well. The big difference was that Tony’s father was in the hospital — Tony visited him the morning of our date — and he died just a couple months later. I never met him, but I catch glimpses sometimes of the man he must have been, when I watch Tony with our boys, cooking and cleaning, helping with homework, soothing hurt feelings and negotiating sibling squabbles — all the things I do — with the extra added bonus of creating unique silly voices for each of our sons’ stuffed animals, knowing how to complete an electric circuit, and quietly demonstrating how to be caring, thoughtful young men. Like their father before them, Ben and Eli have an excellent roadmap for fatherhood, if they decide to be fathers, unlike the hapless and inadvertent adoptive father in our current favorite family movie, Despicable Me.
Despicable Me is a fun ride. The dialogue is snappy (wordplay for the adults and fart jokes for the kids), the look is stylish (one spaceship looks like an Eames chair crossed with one of those ’70s droplet fireplaces); it’s sweet without ever becoming sentimental, all punctuated by a boppy soundtrack. The movie features Gru, a bald and beak-nosed villain with dark shadows under his eyes, who plots to steal the moon and rule the world. On his way to global domination, he makes balloon animals for children only to pop them; he steals world landmarks (the Vegas versions of them, anyway); and, worst of all, he lies in order to adopt three little girls he uses to foil his nemesis, Vector. But even the most cautious viewers (like my two sons) realize quickly that Gru, (voiced by Steve Carrell, his strong, fake accent emphasizing his goofy malapropisms) is no real threat. Nor, for that matter, is the orange tracksuit-wearing, bowl-haircutted Vector (Jason Segel), a spoiled kid with too many electronics. At heart, Despicable Me is about a guy trying desperately to please his acerbic mother (fabulously voiced by Julie Andrews) and who accidentaly becomes a parent himself along the way.
Gru’s mom is an exaggerated nightmare of a mother; resisting my generation’s tendency to fawn over every popsicle-stick art project our kids bring home, she’s dismissive and hilariously mean. When, in a flashback, young Gru tells his mom he wants to go to the moon, she says, “I’m afraid you’re too late, son, NASA isn’t sending the monkeys anymore.” We see him as a little boy trying to impress her with his ever-more-elaborate plans to get to the moon: first a drawing of a moon rocket, then a macaroni prototype of a moon rocket, then a real rocket based on the prototype, to all of which she responds simply, “Eh.”
Meanwhile, Gru doesn’t seem to have a dad. There’s the president of the Bank of Evil, who has funded Gru’s earlier dastardly projects, but now he’s putting his money on the up-and-coming young villain, his own son Vector. Or there’s Gru’s lab assistant, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), but he is as undermining as Gru’s mom. He mishears all Gru’s requests: Gru asks for cookie robots to infiltrate Vector’s fortress and Dr. Nefario makes disco-dancing boogie robots; Gru asks for a dart gun, and Nefario makes a fart gun. Worse, when Nefario sees that Gru’s affection for the little girls is distracting him from the moon mission, he sends them back to the orphanage.
The adoption storyline has been subject to plenty of criticism, and anyone sensitive about the theme might best avoid the movie. Adopted or not, most kids — including five-year-old me — go through a stage where they fear being sent away from their families, and Despicable Me’s jokes about that might not sit well with your kids. Miss Hattie’s Home for Girls is a Dickensian brick tenement, incongruously painted with hearts and Teddy bears on the outside, but inside Miss Hattie (Kristen Wiig, screenwriter and star of this summer’s Bridesmaids) punishes girls by sticking them into the cardboard “box of shame.” The girls — Margo, Edith, and Agnes — are so thrilled at the prospect of leaving Miss Hattie’s (“I bet the mom is beautiful!” “I bet the daddy’s eyes sparkle!” “I bet their house is made of gummy bears!”), even the prospect of being adopted by a dentist (Gru’s cover) only gives them momentary pause.
When Gru first brings the trio of sisters to his house, he refuses to provide for any but their most basic physical needs. He puts dishes labeled “food” (actually a dog bowl of candy) and “water” on the floor, and lays out newspaper as if they were puppies needing to be housebroken. The oldest, Margo, says, “I thought this would be more like Annie;” she tells Gru, “Just so you know, you are never going to be my dad,” to which Gru responds, “I think I can live with that.” It’s Gru’s minions, his goggle-wearing, corndog-shaped science lab workers, who bring little Agnes a lovey when her unicorn is destroyed. It’s made of a dish scrubber and a ping pong ball — of course, she is delighted. The girls aren’t scared off — not by the fiercely toothed creature that Gru keeps as a pet, nor the old bombs he sets up for their beds, nor Gru’s rules (“You will not bother me while I am working. You will not cry or whine or laugh or giggle or sneeze or burp or fart.”). Agnes, the youngest, thinks that Gru is nice but scary, “like Santa.” So they stick around — they don’t have an alternative — and eventually the beds are softened with blankets and a big canopy, eventually Gru stops mocking the bedtime story they choose and writes one for them himself, eventually he makes them pancakes and plays tea party and saves their lives, just like any previously-evil, now reformed super-hero dad.
Gru does capture the moon (temporarily at least) and he does vanquish Vector — that’s what impresses my boys. But he also proves you don’t need a good guide to learn how to father, and that’s what impresses me. Many men today are figuring fatherhood out without a roadmap, whether because they weren’t fathered well themselves or have been cast off-balance by society’s shifting expectations for fathers, and Gru’s initial reluctance reflects that. Still, what makes our family all like Gru so much is his marshmallow heart, which makes him race home from space for his new daughters’ ballet recital. Even his mother finally admits pride in her son: “You turned out to be a great parent! Just like me. Maybe even better.” My lucky kids laugh, not fully understanding that it’s one of the best jokes in the movie, and then as the music shifts from Swan Lake to You Should Be Dancing, their dad pulls them off the couch and we all groove along with the minions, Gru, and his girls in a glorious disco dance party.