Director: Kyle Balda, Brad Ableson, Jonathan del Val
Writer: Matthew Fogel
Cast: Steve Carell, Pierre Coffin, Alan Arkin, Taraji P. Henson, Belle Bottom, Michelle Yeoh
Editor: Claire Dodgson
Minions: The Rise of Gru is the latest in a long, long line of Hollywood franchise installments. The film has the unenviable task of not only serving as the prequel to the three Despicable Me films, which chronicled the exploits of supervillain Gru (Steve Carell), but also as the sequel to the 2015 Minions movie, about his yellow, English-mangling henchmen. It’s thus unsurprising that for all its good-natured charm and zippy humour, it’s strikingly unoriginal. The film’s opening credits play out like an animated parody of a Bond title sequence. The villains, The Vicious Six (sounding like a suspiciously lazy reworking of the Marvel comics’ supervillain group The Sinister Six), are introduced with freeze frames that replicate comic-book panels. This borrowing extends not only to gags from Despicable Me — young Gru, who hasn’t invented his freeze ray yet, settles for cutting queues like he does in that film by dousing waiting patrons in melted cheese instead — but the plot itself. Themes of aging villains finding themselves being nudged out by the younger generation, stony men finding themselves melted by a child’s innocence and the importance of companionship in a world that fosters steely individualism all make a (re)appearance here.
It’s the 1970s, which the film establishes with shots of Jaws (1975) playing in theatres and characters reading Mad Magazine while the soundtrack pops with hits like Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘Shining Star’ and the Ramones’ ‘Hey! Ho! Let’s Go’. This economy of storytelling is absent from the rest of the plot, which cuts between various subplots and parallel stories. Gru, having stolen an artifact from the Vicious Six in the hopes of impressing them, must flee when he incurs their wrath by losing it. The animation is vibrant, particularly when it heads to Chinatown in San Francisco, and has stretches that are inventive in their use of the medium, but it misses its chance to craft a more well-rounded portrait of the villain’s origins.
While Gru’s lonely childhood was depicted through a series of crushing rejections in Despicable Me (2010), any bleakness here is more implied than outright depicted. A scene of the minions picking him up from school and showering him with affection is so warm and cheerful, it takes a while to register that his mother isn’t the one showing up for him. This streak of relentless humour continues throughout, with write-director Kyle Balda keen to keep any darkness away from the sunny, yellow-dominated palette. Gru’s tragic past is only hinted at, with lines like “My mom will probably pay to kill me,” played off as a joke during a ransom sequence. The Vicious Six members get cheeky puns as their supervillain monikers — ‘Nun Chuck’ and ‘Jean Clawed’ are particularly funny — but lack any further characterisation.
Under all its comedy, Despicable Me operated on a fundamental truth, that the arrival of children irrevocably changes a person’s life. In the case of Gru, they made him a better man. By contrast, Minions: Rise of Gru coasts on its easy charm, taking a while to get to its point, its parting message couched in cliché. The theme of unwanted people banding together to discover their strengths is a tender one, but much like most of this film, hardly anything we haven’t seen before.
Minions: The Rise of Gru is currently playing in theatres.