Apparently, my generation is unhappy. According to the author of Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy, Gen Y unhappiness stems from a belief that Gen-Ys see themselves as Protagonists & Special Yuppies (GYPSYs) in their own special story, riding on the back of the optimism of their parents’ generation:

After graduating from being insufferable hippies, Lucy’s parents embarked on their careers. As the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s rolled along, the world entered a time of unprecedented economic prosperity. Lucy’s parents did even better than they expected to. This left them feeling gratified and optimistic.

With a smoother, more positive life experience than that of their own parents, Lucy’s parents raised Lucy with a sense of optimism and unbounded possibility. And they weren’t alone. Baby Boomers all around the country and world told their Gen Y kids that they could be whatever they wanted to be, instilling the special protagonist identity deep within their psyches. This left GYPSYs feeling tremendously hopeful about their careers, to the point where their parents’ goals of a green lawn of secure prosperity didn’t really do it for them. A GYPSY-worthy lawn has flowers. 

If, as the articles says, “Happiness = Reality – Expectations”, Gen Yers are unhappy because the reality of “making it”, has not exceeded expectations of amazing careers and the sense of achieving something special. While the lead character of today’s movie probably doesn’t fit the Generation Y mold – or any sociological category for that matter – dreams, success and happiness are central themes in the 2010 animated feature Despicable Me. Gru, who wants to be the greatest villain of all time, has a career challenge of a different kind.

Gru finds himself in competition with a new villain, so he sets out to steal the moon, to once again become the greatest villain in the world. When three cookie-selling orphans stop by his mansion, Gru realizes the girls can help him steal a  much-needed shrink ray gun from his new nemesis, Vector. Gru adopts them for the sole purpose of breaking into Vector’s house. However, his plan to become the greatest veers off track when he discovers the girls need much more attention than he planned.

 Despicable Me is a super silly villain movie, voiced by an equally crazy cast. Steve Carell, who loves playing around with voices as you get glimpses of in The Office and other animated features (Over the Hedge), brings his talent to the lead character Gru. Comedian Russell Brand plays Gru’s buddy Dr Nefario while Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother, The Muppets) and Will Arnett play Vector and his Banker father respectively.

On the surface of it, it’s about two guys facing off in a quest for superior villainy of the most innocuous kind, coupled with some crazy chases and slapstick moments akin to the old Warner Bros. cartoons – think Wiley E Coyote vs Roadrunner. But I hope a closer examination will unlock some real gems and perhaps a subtle socio-cultural critique.

The opening scenes introduce the theme: tourists on holiday discover the Great Pyramid is a blow-up replacement, a child’s ice-cream falls on the pavement, and Gru teases the kid by blowing up this amazing balloon dog, before bursting it in his face. Gru says later – “life is full of disappointment”, and with that he also means his own life. We learn through a series of flashbacks that Gru not only failed to realize his dream but his mother also offered him little encouragement. Gru’s disappointment has lead him to selfishness – he attempts to be the best at everything, which normally includes pushing away or pushing down anyone who can’t help him.

So, as a super-selfish-super-villain, Gru has heaps of adversaries almost by default. He sees everyone as someone to be conquered or put down. He always has to get his own way, and determines only to think of himself: his team of minions at his beck and call help him achieve his dastardly dreams. His new nemesis Vector is an adversary because he has the same goal as Gru. In many ways, Vector is a younger version of Gru – instead of minions, Vector goes to his daddy the Banker, for help. You know how for babies, it’s all about them? Well, essentially these guys are not acting their age – Vector is a teen (or young adult) who never grew up and Gru is stuck pursuing childhood dreams.

The orphan girls – Margo, Edith, and Agnes – are of much greater significance for Gru. While Gru adopts the girls for his purposes, they quickly become an obstacle as Gru becomes increasingly diverted from his goal by the constant attention the girls require – things like attending dance classes and bedtime stories. Yes, both Vector and the girls oppose Gru’s goal, but the difference is that Vector’s opposition stems from his own selfish desire, but the girls’ opposition stems from their natural need. And in this, Gru’s heart is changing, and the girls drive the change Gru needs: Gru reads a child’s book that speaks of the mother’s love – the love the daughters yearn for and the love that is growing within his own heart.

Nevertheless, Gru persists with his lifelong dream to visit the moon. Selfishness has driven him to steal it rather than enjoy it, to keep it hidden in his underground fortress so only he and his minions can enjoy it’s (miniscule) size. And it’s here the movie begins to make some of its points.

The thing is, the reason why the moon is so good, the reason Gru was attracted to the moon is its wonder and beauty – functions of its size and location.

But a moon in a basement shines no light.

A moon shining no light is thoroughly diminished in its beauty.

A small moon is a boring moon.

A small moon is no good to anyone.

And I think there’s a lesson here somewhere – can we pursue goals in a way that actually diminishes them? Is it possible that we can do the same with God – constrained and explained and fitting neatly inside a theological box? Or is God to be enjoyed for who He is, for his greatness and beauty and love?

Further, Gru learns that he can’t contain the moon anyway, and with it his dreams of being the world’s greatest villain. So he would always be competing for top spot in an endless pursuit of achievement – an endless pursuit of happiness perhaps? Is that what life is about? I reckon the authors also want us to understand something bigger than our own individual dreams: the central plot is basically a space race between the individualist American capitalist and the collectivist Russian labour movement! This is about society too. And I think Despicable Me says something to both sides.

In Part Two, I’ll discuss Despicable Me from Margo, Edith, and Agnes’ perspective as these two paths intertwine.