Little Orphan Annie may be no more (the comic strip ended its 86-year run last month), but her brethren remain very much with us.
Particularly in animated kids’ films.
And sure enough, three adorable little orphan girls are major characters in “Despicable Me,” a charming, funny and whiz-bang clever animated film (in 3-D). But this trio of urchins is just the latest in a long line of parentless characters, whether human or animal kingdom, in cartoon features.
Think about it. How many of the main characters in Disney and even Pixar films lose at least one parent and, often, both? A drum roll, please: there’s Snow White (no birth mother); Bambi (Dad is absentee, Mom is killed by hunters); Cinderella (no birth mother); “The Lion King’s” Simba (witnesses his father’s death and then, at length, pitifully paws the corpse); and “Finding Nemo’s” titular little fishlet (Mom dies). And plenty more.
Even in the current Pixar blockbuster, “Toy Story 3,” when a college-aged Andy intends to abandon to the trash barrel or the attic Woody and the gang, is he not effectively orphaning them?
It’s all enough to provide fodder for several doctoral theses. C’mon, U.S.C. and U.C.L.A. film studies graduate students, jump on this now.
You don’t have to have boned up on Bruno Bettelheim to understand what’s going on. Moviemakers are tapping into that most primal fear of all kids: that Mom and Dad are going to disappear. (I have a friend whose young daughter is adopted; she refuses to take her child to animated films for just this reason.)
Then again, there’s a reason animated filmmakers are so eager to kill off Mom or Dad or both. By getting rid of the ‘rents, the orphaned character’s chances to find adventure (and danger) expand exponentially. Why else do parents exist, other then to warn and guard us against hurting ourselves, venturing off too far or putting beans up our nose?
In “Despicable Me,” which really is as much fun for grownup viewers as diminutive ones, the three orphans are Margo (voiced by Miranda Cosgrove, star of “iCarly,” the popular Nickelodean kids’ TV show), Edith and Agnes. They are adopted by Gru (Steve Carell), a notorious evildoer who only gives them a home because he believes they’ll unwittingly be of help in his latest diabolical plan to steal the moon.
It goes without saying, at least to grown-ups, that Gru comes to love the girls and to see that attending their ballet recital might be a an even worthier venture than pursuing crime.
“Despicable,” co-directed by Chris Renaud (who did the Oscar-nominted short, “No Time for Nuts”) and Pierre Coffin, is visually creative and makes savvy use of 3-D. (At the screening I attended, kids in the audience had a blast reaching out to try to touch objects seemingly looming at them from the screen.)
Especially winning are the throngs of “minions,” little, yellow, capsule-shaped characters (they look like animated Contact cold-medicine pills), who are employed by Gru and chatter incessantly in a squeaky gibberish. They deserve a spin-off movie of their own.
But don’t take my word for how terrific “Despicable” is. Heed Fred, 10, my non-orphan consultant on kids’ films. He is a discerning little critic, having recognized that “Alice in Wonderland” was only so-so (“Not great,” he pronounced it) and turning to me after seeing “Up,” and stating authoritatively (and correctly), “Pixar never disappoints.”
During “Despicable,” he kept reaching over to gently pinch me (to make sure I was paying attention) and whisper, “This is sooooo good!”