How To Build A Better Animated Family Movie – Part 4: The Protagonist Has A Satisfying Arc, Changing For The Better

Despicable Me - Gru and Agnes

(c) Universal Studios


In the course of the story, the orphaned girls’ persistent need for love and care turns a reluctant Gru from emotionally closed and focused on pursuing personal glory, into a loving dad who puts family first. Via the girls, whom Gru thrusts into his life as a means to an end, Gru winds up facing a challenge to a problem he didn’t even realize he had. He needs to love, and to be loved in return.

The writers are thorough, making sure Gru’s relationship with his mother is also satisfyingly addressed. Gru heals this relationship, and not by the act of villainy he thinks will do it (stealing the moon). Rather, his mother comes to love the girls, and expresses that she is proud of Gru for how he’s parenting them.

One of the reasons people go to the movies, consciously or not, is to experience hope. Because we hope people can change for the better, a protagonist who believably transforms always makes for a compelling one. Think of the Grinch in the classic TV cartoon version of HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

(c) Turner Entertainment/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Or take Bill Murray’s weatherman character Phil in GROUNDHOG DAY, who starts out a selfish jerk, and winds up a stand-up guy finally worthy of the girl, whom he then gets. Gru is such a protagonist.

Groundhog Day

(c) Columbia Pictures

Methodically and convincingly, Gru changes, in clear, definable beats. This is a guy who starts out too busy to play with the girls, but later throws himself into winning a toy for one of them at an amusement park. As his relationship with the girls progresses, Gru spends so much time with them he neglects his moon theft scheme, prompting Dr. Nefario to send them back to the orphanage. What was important to Gru is becoming less so. The girls are taking precedent.

Gru’s change is gradual, credible, and wish-fulfilling: it’s what we want to see happen. That change can be seen in small moments –when Gru is touched to find the girls have extended the painting on the wall of his family tree – and in big, concrete acts: in the climax, Gru chooses to risk himself to save the girls, now very much his girls. Gru’s arc can be clearly charted within the story. It’s believably built-to, and therefore satisfying.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>