Writing a review of Minions: The Rise of Gru feels like a thankless affair. Simply look at the box office of the other films in the Despicable Me franchise. Shoot, look at the box office for any film produced by computer animation studio Illumination. Sure as the sun will shine, this movie will make money and the children of many of those reading this will drag them to go see it. To that specific segment of the readership, rest assured in the knowledge that this go-around of the gibberish-spewing yellow marketing machines is relatively painless.
Minions: The Rise of Gru picks up right where 2015’s smash hit left off. The Minions – often represented by the quartet of Kevin, Stuart, Otto, and Bob (Pierre Coffin) – find a truly despicable villain to follow in the elementary school-aged prodigy Gru (Steve Carrell). It’s Gru’s greatest dream to get into a group of supervillains known as the Vicious 6. Sadly, his audition goes awry, but an unperturbed Gru decides to make his mark by stealing a stone of great importance to the 6, hoping to trade it for a spot on the team. His plan gets complicated when one of his minions loses the stone and he ends up in the clutches of former Vicious 6 member Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin).
All that’s asked of director Kyle Balda is to maintain a high level of energy to keep the kiddos entertained. For the most part, he does an admirable job of such. Minions: The Rise of Gru contains Illumination’s strongest animation yet, the exaggerated character designs looking pretty darn great in motion. At times, it’s easy to fall into a state of hypnosis by the Looney Tunes-esque frenetic movement. Much like the children for whom this movie is the target audience! There’s enough slapstick to keep the proceedings chugging along, even eliciting a few chuckles along the way. It helps that the 1970s setting naturally lends itself to a colorful, warm visual style. Bless this creative choice for allowing the use of a significant amount of toe-tapping 70s classic songs.
The actual story at the center of Minions: The Rise of Gru remains pretty hit-or-miss. Pierre Coffin is having the time of his life once again voicing the minions. However, he fails to make the main four distinct enough from each to really tell the difference beyond visual cues. When the movie splits its plot between Gru and the minions, who are on their own for a decent chunk of it, that can be an issue. The minions are delivery vehicles for gags, therefore they’re only as compelling as the situations they’re in.
At times, such as a stretch where they train under a kindly kung fu master (Michelle Yeoh), their misadventures are a lot of fun! Others, it’s a little tedious. The Vicious 6 are a total wash as well. As antagonists, they fail to make an impression entirely, which is especially strange considering one of their members is a lobster-like one named Jean Clawed (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and another is a nun with nunchucks named Nunchuck (Lucy Lawless). It’s a stark reminder that a fun character design does not a fun character make.
Nevertheless, as a prequel to the Despicable Me franchise, The Rise of Gru actually works. Carrell’s wide-eyed supervillain-to-be plays in great contrast to the curmudgeonly Gru we know. In that way, the film functions are somewhat of a coming-of-age tale. The definite highlight is his friendship with Wild Knuckles. What starts as hero worship turns into a generational celebration of what makes being bad feel so good. Plus, there are a lot of clever ways in which this film sets up how this Gru became the Gru in the present. This includes a surprising cameo that made me grin from ear-to-ear, an impressive feat considering my indifference to the franchise. Really, though, this storyline works because it lets two actors have fun in the voiceover booth while their riffs play over some eye-popping animation.
No doubt about it, Minions: The Rise of Gru is as close to a sure thing as you can get in the animation market. They’re no Studio Ghibli, Pixar, or even Sony Pictures Animation, but Illumination continues to carve out its own niche. Illumination releases animated blockbusters, yet there’s no empty capitalistic cynicism behind it. They do it with frequency, they do it with quality, and at this point, they’re showing no signs of stopping. Why should they? Movies like Minions: The Rise of Gru won’t change the animation game, but they’ll sure make their target audiences happy. Let the kids have fun. –James Preston Poole
Minions: The Rise of Gru releases in theaters everywhere on July 1, 2022.