How To Build A Better Animated Family Movie – Part 1: The Concept Is Clear To Kids, And So’s The Story

Despicable Me - Poster: Superbad. Superdad.

(c) Universal Studios

THE STORY IN CAPSULE

In case you’ve never seen DESPICABLE ME, here’s what you need to know about the story:

When the pyramids of Giza are stolen by arch villain Vector (Jason Segel), aspiring super-villain Gru’s (Steve Carell) never-satisfied mother (Julie Andrews) is disappointed to learn Gru is not behind the theft. Gru responds by hatching an audacious plan to steal the moon, with the help of inventor sidekick Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) and Gru’s ever-willing, mischievous mini-assistants, the Minions. To accomplish this, Gru first needs to steal a shrink ray to shrink the moon down to easier-to-steal size. The shrink ray is being developed in a government lab somewhere on an island off Asia. Gru and the Minions manage to steal the device, but as soon as they do, Vector snatches it and locks it up in his fortified, futuristic home. Gru learns Vector has a weakness for cookies sold door-to-door (akin to Girl Scout cookies) by three orphaned sisters, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith and Agnes, who’ll have access to Vector’s home to drop off his cookie order. Gru adopts the girls from the orphanage, where they’ve been longing for a home and parental love. They soon get under Gru’s skin, driving him crazy by simply being kids, yet inexorably winning him over – and vice versa. Gru’s focus on his moon-stealing scheme slips, so Dr. Nefario sends the girls back to the orphanage. Gru goes ahead with his scheme, yet finds himself missing the girls. The girls are jeopardized in the climax of Gru’s moon heist. Gru opts to save the girls — risking his master plan and himself. The guy who aspired to be the world’s greatest super-villain becomes a dad, the girls attain love and home … and Gru’s mom is finally proud of him.

1. THE CONCEPT IS CLEAR TO KIDS, AND SO’S THE STORY

The underlying concept is that of a super-villain being a dad. It’s not 100% new: this idea was seen before as a very funny running gag in the AUSTIN POWERS series, in which villain Dr. Evil grappled with resentful grown son Scott, whose love he craved yet could never win. But it’s just a subplot.

Austin Powers - Dr. Evil

(c) New Line Productions

In DESPICABLE ME, super-villain-as-dad is the central concept. It’s clearly expressed and easy to grasp: the orphans want a dad, but “dad” wants to be the world’s greatest villain. How can he be both? That inherent conflict promises to be entertaining. Kids get it, and want to see how it plays out.

Despicable Me - Gru and the Moon

(c) Universal Studios

Not only is the concept clear, but there is nothing in storyline’s exposition that remains obscure or difficult to follow. All the principal characters have clear goals and transparent motives:

  • The girls want a dad.
  • Gru wants to steal the moon to beat his rival, Vector … and needs the girls to do it
  • Gru’s underlying goal is to impress his mother.

This last element is especially important because it’s clear and relatable: Kids understand the desire to make their parents proud, and can identify with Gru because of it. Wanting to prove yourself to your parents is a universal touchstone, which makes Gru relatable to everyone – parents too, some of whom may relate to Gru’s predicament: even as a grown-up, nothing he’s done seems to be good enough to impress his mom.

Despicable Me - Gru's Mother

(c) Universal Studios

The storyline’s resolution is clear and satisfying:

  • Gru does steal the moon – but only to have to give it up to save the girls, whom he learns to value more than his original goal. In this way, he completes the process of becoming a dad: someone who puts his kids’ needs first.
  • Gru does best Vector (who is left stuck on the moon).
  • Gru does impress his mother, though not in the way he intended: he turns out to be a great parent she deems “just like me. Maybe even better.”

Up next, 2. THE PREMISE APPEALS TO BOTH KIDS AND ADULTS

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