Ever since Netflix launched its running public list of the top 10 most popular streaming offerings on the site, armchair commentators have been playing a game of “Why is this trending right now?” Netflix’s list refreshes often, and it sees a lot of churn, with movies like Mel Gibson’s Taken riff Blood Father surging upward one day, then disappearing entirely the next. A lot of the titles trend for perfectly obvious reasons — they’re movies that are new to Netflix and being promoted on the service, or popular shows with new episodes, like Ozark or Money Heist. But sometimes, something seemingly random surfaces on the top 10, and then clings there — like Angry Birds 2, which inexplicably (or maybe entirely explicably?) spent weeks on the list before finally succumbing to newer content.
The same reasons that propelled Angry Birds 2 onto the most-popular chart may also explain the fact that 2010’s animated adventure Despicable Me has just arrived in the number-one slot, unseating the list’s all-time champion, the virally popular docu-series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. Tiger King has topped the list for nearly a month now, buoyed by widespread word of mouth and heavy media coverage. It also got a recent boost from a hastily shot “aftershow” episode, featuring Joel McHale interviewing the some of the documentary series’ bit players, and giving them a forum to vent about how they were portrayed.
And granted, in a period where large swaths of the American population are sheltering at home to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, and streaming services are seeing a strong traffic boost as a result, Tiger King has been an unbeatable, grabby distraction. The seven-episode series about big-cat breeder Joe Exotic, and his alleged plot to have his animal-rights activist rival Carole Baskin murdered, has been a kind of soap-opera fixation for Netflix viewers. They’ve endlessly hashed over the story and its many villains, its unheralded victims, its grotesquely oversized personalities, and its depressing implications about America. Compared to that, a 10-year-old animated movie about a reformed supervillain just doesn’t seem like much competition.
But like Angry Birds 2 before it, Despicable Me has some clear appeal for Netflix streamers. The film, about how smug, successful supervillain Gru (Steve Carell) semi-accidentally adopts three cute orphans, is bubbly, lively, and visually colorful. It’s also been out long enough to seem fresh again. After multiple sequels and the spin-off movie Minions (focusing entirely on Gru’s weird capsule-shaped, babble-talking henchmen), the details of the first movie may seem newly surprising. As with so many popular franchises, the sequels have made considerably more money in theaters than the originals. (Despicable Me made $543 million worldwide, while its direct sequel earned $970 million, and Despicable Me 3 and Minions both climbed past the $1 billion mark). That means the original film may be new to a lot of people who were drawn in for the sequels by the cultural ubiquity of the Minion characters.
Also, top 10 status for a Netflix title is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy for certain titles. People who didn’t sit down for a Netflix session thinking, “I really want to watch Despicable Me again” may be tempted to join the viewing party when they see it pop up on the trending list, especially since it’s a comparatively short film with no heavy messages or demands. It even feels like particularly appropriate viewing at the moment. It opens with Gru, like so many of us at home right now, in his most sullen, grim mode, clearly hating the world and everyone in it who dares to crowd or challenge him. It goes from there into pure outsized fantasy escapism, with a nod to Looney Tunes-level comedy violence. And finally, it wraps on a note of pure gooey feel-good sentiment. Maybe it’s what we all need right now. Certainly Netflix’s viewers seem to think so at the moment.