Chicago – When the talkative yellow pill-shaped creatures known as Minions first appeared in the animated supervillain comedy “Despicable Me,” they were essentially a knockoff of the semi-verbal characters seen in classic Pixar films. Think aliens in “Toy Story” or woodlice in “A Bug’s Life,” cloned and modified by cartoon studio Illumination. However, as the Minions remained through two “Despicable” sequels and their own spin-off movie, a strange thing happened: their Minionese gibberish, a mix of multiple languages including Spanish, Italian, English, Russian and Japanese, gradually became easier to understand. – perhaps even preferable to the more traditional methods of communication of the series’ human characters. Yet over that same period, what actually happens in any given scene of a “Minions” movie has become more inscrutable.
In ‘Minions: The Rise of Gru’, the confusion begins before the movie even begins: where exactly does this story take place in the ‘Despicable’ timeline? The first “Minions” was a spin-off game before the little guys crossed paths with the supervillain Gru. (The first “Despicable Me” vaguely implied that Gru created them, but never mind.) “Rise of Gru” is a sequel to “Minions,” but also a direct prequel to “Despicable Me.” It brings in Gru’s character as a youngster, inexplicably elaborating on his origin in a movie that’s supposed to be about little weirdos who say “banana!” all the time. Did it really have to be a saga? And if so, why does the movie named after the Minions feature them so little in the first third of its story?
About ‘Minions: The Rise of Gru’: Even for a stupid cartoon, it doesn’t make much sense
Indeed, kids thrilled to see their Minion pals Kevin, Bob, and Stuart (all voiced by “Despicable Me” director Pierre Coffin) may be taken aback by the extended Minion-less opening of “Rise of Gru.” Instead, the film focuses on the Vicious Six, a powerful group of villains with barely boring names like Belle Bottom (Taraji P.Henson), Strong Hold (Danny Trejo) and Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin) – in case anyone needs to remind you that verbal humor is not Illumination’s forte. Young Gru (a pitch adjusted Steve Carell), an outcast at school guarding a fleet of eager-to-please Minions at his mother’s house, desperately wants to join the Vicious Six. They happen to have an opening after betraying the founder of the Wild Knuckles group during a heist of a rare stone.
(left to right) Svengeance (Dolph Lundgren), Jean Clawed (Jean-Claude Van Damme), Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), Stronghold (Danny Trejo), and Nunchuck (Lucy Lawless) in Illumination’s Minions: The Rise of Gru , directed by Kyle Balda.
When the Six reject Gru out of hand, he retaliates by stealing the stolen stone. Wild Knuckles, also in pursuit of the Stone, kidnaps Gru; the main trio of Minions then set out to rescue him, while newcomer Minion Otto sets off to retrieve the Stone, which he has just traded for a Pet Rock. (The film is set somewhere in the late 1970s, presumably to cover up the overplayed disco hits on the soundtrack.) A series of wild chases ensue, but the film spends most of its time spinning in circles. .
It may seem absurd to criticize a “Minions” sequel for being confusing. Here’s the problem: the filmmakers, led by director Kyle Balda, don’t seem to recognize the difference between comic/cartoon logic and no logic at all. With comic logic, the characters act in a way that makes sense to them, making a series of decisions that culminate in a ridiculous conclusion that subverts expectations. On the other hand, characters who do any “random” thing for laughs don’t employ any logic.
(left to right) Minion Otto and Biker (RZA) in Illumination’s Minions: The Rise of Gru, directed by Kyle Balda.
At best, the Minions, like many classic cartoon characters, use comedic logic. “Minions: The Rise of Gru” has a fun little sequence where Kevin, Bob, and Stuart attempt to commandeer a commercial airline to reach their destination. They ruin the flight because they do what they feel they have to do to accomplish their mission, which involves trying and failing to mimic normal flight crew behaviors.
As simple as that sounds, it’s not always a guiding principle. Later in the film, the trio take a long series of kung fu lessons with a stranger. Why, exactly? Apparently because the filmmakers thought it would be fun to have the legendary michelle yeo voice a kung fu instructor with the same lazy design (pear shape, untucked shirt) as Rosita the pig from Illumination’s “Sing” movies. Later, the Vicious Six use their enchanted stone to transform themselves and others into Chinese zodiac animals, presumably as a touching homage to the fact that “Despicable Me 3” made a ton of money in China. Throughout the overly complicated film, things happen without explanation or escalation, as if following a poorly translated Minionese script.
(left to right) Illumination’s Minions: The Rise of Gru, directed by Kyle Balda.
Yet when “Rise of Gru” attempts to tame its own comedic anarchy, it’s no better. It may actually be worse, indulging in a misguided attempt to recreate the pathos of the original “Despicable Me” with the relationship between young Gru and the grumpy (but not particularly evil) Wild Knuckles. The first film is the story of a lone misanthropic supervillain learning to love an unexpected family; does it really make sense to give him some extra backstory where he has a loving, supportive mentor as a child?
See ‘Minions: The Rise of Gru’ for: A chance to hear children’s laughter
It’s almost certain that most kids will enjoy “Minions: The Rise of Gru.” It’s a fast-paced slapstick featuring their favorite goofballs. There is nothing wrong with that. It has its moments, and the filmmakers’ desire to explode into kinetic silliness is a sympathetic impulse, which sets this film apart from more thematically ambitious family fare. Adults may even find her laughs cathartic. But it’s a little unsettling to realize that five movies and 12 years into their flagship franchise, Illumination isn’t improving in this area.
In theaters nationwide July 1. Rated PG. 87 mins. Dir: Kyle Balda. With: Steve Carell, Taraji P.Henson, michelle yeo, RZA, Jean Claude Van Damme, Lawless Lucy, Dolph Lundgren, Danny Trejo, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Alan Arkin.
About the writer: Jesse Hassenger is a writer, editor and film critic based in Brooklyn, New York. His reviews and essays have appeared in The AV Club, Polygon, Paste Magazine, The Week, and Decider, among others. He also co-hosts the horror podcast The New Flesh, occasionally writes fiction, and loves rock and roll. His tweets about Aquaman’s Brine King appear on @rockmarooned.
Tales of a Fifth Grade Robin Hood (2021): Jon Lovitz gets a little mustache trick (metaphorically speaking) in this kid-centric back-to-school comedy (Chase Brown) at an underfunded city high school and his battle with his dishonest vice principal (Lovitz). “Tales of a Fifth Grade Robin Hood” is a Tubi-Original. Rated TV-PG. 84 minutes. Dir: Dylan Vox. Also presenting Stephen Kramer GlickmanIliana Isabelle Perez, Jayden Scala.
How to watch “Minions: The Rise of Gru”
Everyone’s favorite little yellow buddies rush into theaters on Friday, July 1. “Minions: The Rise of Gru” is not currently available to stream, but the rest of the “Despicable Me” cinematic universe is streaming via Peacock and/or NBC Universal.
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