Monday, July 26, 2010

TV Tuesday: Despicable Me

Nickelodeon's new, computer animated movie, Despicable Me, is yet another example of an animated "kids" movie really intended for adults. The first sign of this fact is the casting of Russel Brand as the voice of one of the supporting characters. Russel Brand is best known in Britain for his typically vulgar and often off-color humor--distinctly an adult entertainer. Often, when such performers make their first forays into children's entertainment, their scripts are less than child appropriate. The presence of an actor best known for adult humor always makes me question the child appropriateness of a movie--even when that actor is Eddie Murphy or Robin Williams (both of whom have participated in true children's entertainment).

Beyond this issue of casting, the blurring of the line between hero and villain (in this movie taken to an extreme only surpassed by Batman) is a concept far more appropriate for an adult audience than for a young one. Children are, by definition, learning the rules of their culture and about the different roles people play--that includes the difference between right and wrong. While real people are never purely good or bad, it is far easier for children to learn about good and bad from less realistic, more purified examples, which is why fairy tale characters are written the way they are. When heroes have to struggle with real inner demons or psychological issues as part of the plot, it can easily look to a child like a justification of bad behavior. This is especially so for children on the Spectrum. Our "hero" in Despicable Me is one of the "world's great villains" who is competing with another villain to pull off the ultimate heist. In the process, and through a villainous deception, he learns about the importance of family and love, turning him into a hero. Moreover, the little girls in the story (truly good characters) are impressed by some of our "hero's" more sinister characteristics, further blurring the line between good and bad.

The story itself is surrealist. Our hero wishes to steal the moon to one-up a villain who stole a pyramid. In the process, we encounter all kinds of logic defying devices that distract one from the story line and depart from any frame of reference (a piranha gun, for example). While I think Nickelodeon was attempting to take their cue from Disney's Meet the Robinsons, they overdid it, using bizarre imagery to cover up a disjointed plot.

On a smaller scale the movie runs into more problems, especially where children with AS are concerned. First, the movie opens with the discovery that a pyramid at Giza has been replaced by an inflatable replica. This is discovered when a group of American tourists disembark from a tour bus and a wayward child from the bus falls on the pyramid. The American tourists are portrayed as rude, inconsiderate, uneducated, disruptive, and unconcerned about the needs and comfort of others--especially the ones with southern accents. First of all, I object to that stereotype, both about Americans in general, and especially about Southerners. However, regardless of political beliefs about America's behavior towards other peoples, the fact remains that American children (especially those with AS, who can easily take these things too far) should not be made to feel bad for something over which they have no control. An American-born child has absolutely no control over where s/he was born, and a naturalized child has no control over his/her parents' citizenship decisions.

Another smaller scale problem is the centrality of one-upmanship to the plot. Children are easily led into poor sportsmanship (of which one-upmanship is perhaps the worst characteristic). Children with AS are especially drawn to it, particularly when they harbor fears of their own inadequacy or have experienced bullying. Many video games, computer games and anime programs often nurture this unfortunate trait as well. The last thing our kids need is a movie centered on it.

Overall, I would not recommend Despicable Me even for adults, and think it sets a very poor example for children.

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