How To Build A Better Animated Family Movie – Part 3: The Protagonist Is Truly Likeable

Despicable Me - Gru at Amusement Park

(c) Universal Studios


Too often, the makers of family movies take for granted that the audience will like the protagonist just because he or she is the protagonist. The result can be a bland hero/heroine, or at the opposite pole, one who starts out too dislikable in order to accommodate a character arc that gives the character room to change.

The makers of DESPICABLE ME had a challenge inherent in the movie’s concept: the protagonist is a self-proclaimed villain, and therefore almost by definition a bad guy. But they got around that in a smart way, making an ostensibly bad guy genuinely likable – and even endearing.

Like many a classic-style animated villain, Gru’s look is defined in sharp angles: he’s pointy-noised, and his frame is shaped like an upside-down cone.

Here’s Gru …

Despicable Me - Gru: Four Shot

(c) Universal Studios

And here’s Maleficent from SLEEPING BEAUTY…

Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty

(c) Disney


Scar from The Lion King

(c) Disney

… And Jafar from ALADDIN…

Jafar from Aladdin

(c) Disney

But Gru departs from the villain norm in small yet noticeable ways that signal to the audience he’s not so bad.

  • He wears an ever-present scarf, suggesting vulnerability and a need for warmth.
  • Like many animated bad guys, his sound is distinctive: he talks in an indefinable accent. But it’s oddly amusing, not menacing — the kind of funny voice an adult might make up to entertain a kid.
  • His house, car, pet and his many gadgets are the stuff of a mad scientist, but rendered in a goofy, rather than frightening, style.

It’s the nature of Gru’s character that ultimately seals the deal, winning over the audience. During an early-in-the-film phone conversation between Gru and his mother, she scoffs at him when she learns it wasn’t Gru who stole a missing pyramid (it was Vector). Gru insists he’s about to do something big and important that will make her very proud, to which she sarcastically responds, “Good luck with that!” Later, he flashes back to childhood moments in which he’s seen in a home-made cardboard-box astronaut costume, trying to win mom’s approval with a scheme to send himself to the moon. She’s thoroughly unimpressed, yet Gru keeps trying — making him relatable and sympathetic.

That Gru’s really a good guy at heart is further established by showing how he interacts with his Minions: he calls them by name (even though many of them seem interchangeable), he asks about their families, and he declares them “all right in my book.”

As for his supposed villainy, his crimes are really just imaginative pranks. He’s not evil, he’s mischievous. For example:

  • The very first time he’s seen, he makes a balloon animal for a crying kid who’s making far too much fuss over having just dropped an ice cream cone on the ground. As soon as Gru presents the kid with the balloon animal, Gru deliberately pops it – delighting, as children do, in the thrill of being naughty.
  • He cuts to the front of the tediously long line at a coffee shop by using a freeze ray to freeze the customers ahead of him. And yet, he leaves a tip.
  • He brags to the Minions about having stolen the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower – but they’re not the real ones, they’re the little ones from Las Vegas.

These pranks deflate the overblown (the crying kid’s fit), defeat the annoying (the coffee line), and mock the tacky (Vegas copies of exalted originals). They’re pranks we might like to commit, if we could.

Though grand in his super-villain ambitions, Gru’s plans are comically undermined or diminished at every turn:

  • In order to fund his scheme to steal the moon, he has to apply for a loan from the Bank Of Evil.
  • He’s frequently mis-heard by his slightly hard-of-hearing inventor sidekick, who responds to Gru’s requests for gadgets by mistakenly building Boogie Robots (instead of the requested Cookie Robots), and later, a Fart Gun (Gru had asked for a dart gun).
  • His scheme is frequently side-tracked by the new demands of parenthood – e.g., the girls refuse to deliver cookies to Vector until Gru takes them to ballet class.

Gru’s little defeats create sympathy for him. His mischievous pranks are wish-fulfilling for the audience. Add to this how the girls turn Gru into an exasperated parent, forcing him to accommodate their needs, and you’ve got a character who’s not only likable, he’s relatable.  More on that in 4. THE PROTAGONIST HAS A SATISFYING ARC, CHANGING FOR THE BETTER

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