As I mentioned in this month’s edition of “ The Worst Trailer in the World” (currently hovering around 5,000 views; seriously, I love you all!), I really liked the original Despicable Me film. I enjoyed the idea of a villain learning to see the good in himself and apply that to other people once he became responsible to someone other than himself. I liked the idea of a quasi-underground group of villains operating in the modern day. I even liked the Minions and their juvenile antics to a certain extent, because a lot of jokes are funny the first time you hear them, even groaners and silly fart gags, which is about 97.825% of their repertoire. As a standalone piece of comedy, it worked quite well.
The problem is repetition. When you keep going back to that same well over and over again with each successive movie, changing basically nothing about the structure, it isn’t long before returns go from “diminishing” to “non-existent.” Sadly, the Illumination animation studio has utterly failed to recognize this fact, churning out the same product three successive times, including the 2015 spinoff film, Minions, meant to give us some backstory and context for the behavior and personality of their favorite lemon-flavored packing peanuts.
Now we’ve essentially combined that spinoff with the core franchise in the form of Minions: The Rise of Gru, a straight-up prequel to the Despicable trilogy, in an age where there’s yet to be one truly solid prequel for any existing IP. As such, there’s an even greater over-reliance on gags that stopped being funny over a decade ago, and the story — if you can even call it that — is a completely jumbled mess in service to those very lame jokes.
One of the core issues of the film becomes apparent quite quickly, which is that it seems despite the franchise’s financial success, no one bothers to watch the previous entries when writing the new ones. Much more care and attention is put into surface level references and in-jokes rather than anything resembling a logical consistency, even in a universe as absurd as this one.
Cases in point: The film opens with a parody of a James Bond title sequence, only with the theme song either being performed in “Minionese” or really, Really, REALLY racist imitation Chinese. The fact that we in the audience can’t even tell is problematic in itself, but the priority of the studio is crystal clear, because the entire montage is just a series of callback gags, including to the infamous “Fart Gun” from the first movie… which takes place decades AFTER this one… and was made entirely by accident according to that film’s story.
From that point we are introduced to the primary antagonists of this film, a team of villains known as the “Vicious 6,” which is clearly a ripoff of the “Sinister Six” from the Spider-Man comics. However, these people are not villains, just terrible puns with attached character designs. You have Belle Bottoms (Taraji P. Henson, who is so much better than this), basically a walking, talking Pam Grier parody; Jean-Clawed (voiced by Van Damme), a Frenchman with a lobster claw for one of his arms; Nun-chuck (voiced by Lucy Lawless apparently doing an impression of Megan Mullally as Aunt Gayle from Bob’s Burgers for her three lines), literally an old woman in a habit who makes nunchaku out of her crucifix; Svengeance, a vaguely Swedish combo of a Viking and a roller derby racer voiced by Dolph Lundgren, because kids totally know that he’s Swedish; and Stronghold (Danny Trejo), who’s just a big guy with metal arms.
The only member of the group who’s not a tired joke is Wild Knuckles, who formed the group. Voiced by ACADEMY! AWARD! WINNER! Alan Arkin (just want to remind him of that if he ever reads this and wonders what he’s doing with his life), his name at least requires a second of thought, as it’s more a lateral joke, in that he rides motorcycles and other vehicles really fast, i.e. “white knuckle” driving, and he has an affinity for elaborate combat and jungle themes, hence the “wild” half. Since he’s the only one who even has ONE dimension, he’s quickly betrayed and left for dead by his crew after he steals the film’s MacGuffin, the Zodiac Stone, a gem that unleashes mystical powers in line with the Chinese Zodiac. This backstabbing is honestly the only truly villainous thing the other members of the “Vicious 6” do, as their introduction only features a series of mild dick moves like Belle riding her motorcycle against traffic and running red lights. I live in Los Angeles. If that’s villainy, then by contrast I’m goddamn Batman because I adhere to the rules of the road. They literally have no wicked scheme to use the stone either, other than the nebulous goal of taking out the Anti-Villain League, an organization that didn’t exist until the second Despicable Me film, and of which Gru is ostensibly unaware despite meeting them — and Steve Coogan’s Silas Ramsbottom — IN THIS MOVIE!
So right away, the film demonstrates a complete lack of care or even token acknowledgement of its own canon, and it only continues when Gru himself (Steve Carrell, abandoning the subdued voice he had as a “child” in flashbacks during the original film in favor of high-pitched shouting throughout) comes on the scene. He is given an invitation to interview for the opening on the “Vicious 6” created by the assassination attempt on Wild Knuckles, and when he goes to their hideout, inside a music store called “Criminal Records” — a joke lamer than the worst sign gag on any episode of The Simpsons, his meeting is facilitated by Dr. Nefario (a returning Russell Brand, because… why exactly?), who is still tinkering about trying to make it as an evil scientist.
Now, hold the fuck up! This introduces TWO gaping continuity holes. In the previous Minions movie, we see Gru and his mother (Julie Andrews) at the evil convention where the Minions are recruited by Scarlet Overkill (reduced to a cameo on a lunchbox for this film). In fact, they’re even at a display booth for Dr. Nefario. And yet this scene is played like he and Gru meeting for the first time. What the hell? And even if you can somehow find a way to gloss over that in your mind as maybe a random encounter they don’t remember, try this on. The last film took place in 1968, and the character models have not changed between then and now, where the movie is set in 1976. Eight years have passed, and neither Gru, his mother, nor Nefario, have aged a day. More importantly, this film establishes that Gru is 11 years old, which means he would have been fucking THREE in the last one! Again, does no one at Illumination even watch their previous output to note these things? I know it’s torture for us to watch these films, but if you’re not even willing to watch them yourselves to keep your context straight, how can you possibly expect us to pay attention or give a crap?
Anyway, tossing that aside, because clearly the filmmakers did in favor of their needle drop soundtrack (including songs like “Funkytown” that aren’t released until several years after the film’s events, yet the characters outright perform them rather than leaving them in the background), Gru has essentially adopted/hired the Minions (collectively voiced by creator Pierre Coffin; this is the first film in the series he hasn’t also directed) and put them to work building a makeshift lair in his basement. They serve him well enough, but he’s clearly embarrassed by their shenanigans, as are we all. This comes to a head after the interview with the “Vicious 6,” where Gru is quickly rejected for being a child, but thanks to his anger, a plot convenient prototype gadget given to him by Nefario, and admittedly a shred of cunning, he steals the Zodiac Stone from them and makes a daring escape.
During the chase, he’s forced to split one of the group, Otto (for all of you forced to buy the latest toy), off as a diversion to get the stone home while he continues to evade with Kevin, Stuart, and Bob, the main trio from the last film. Otto, impulsive as the rest of his kin, through a Rube Goldberg-esque parade of bullshit, ends up trading the stone for a Pet Rock. This draws Gru’s whiny ire and the group is fired. Attempting to recover the stone himself, Gru is then abducted by Wild Knuckles, who was hatching his own scheme to steal the stone back, leading to a three-way split in the plot, where Gru hangs out with Wild Knuckles in San Francisco, the Minions (themselves on two separate subplots) try to recover the stone and rescue their “Mini Boss,” and the Vicious 5-of-6 continue their pursuit of Gru, unaware of Wild Knuckles’ survival, even though he literally has a house on top of a hill in Frisco shaped like a “W” stacked on a “K.”
A lot of this is slapdash and not the least bit entertaining. Some of the lamest jokes in the entirety of the series — and that is saying something — get casually tossed at the viewer at just about every turn, from a kung fu training montage led by Michelle Yeoh (how many brilliant talents can get wasted in this franchise?) that consists of nothing but Stuart smacking Kevin’s head against a wooden plank, to a side trip to the Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers in the first movie, but according to this one, just the Bank of Evil, and located in San Francisco rather than the pastiche Los Angeles where Gru lives in the main continuity) that mostly serves as a way to make Gru somehow meet Perkins (Will Arnett) and be aware of Vector to retcon that whole storyline, to Otto chasing a motorcycle hippie (RZA) on a tricycle that’s so illogical it requires a deus ex machina to resolve its own deus ex machina.
I’d say that this is all to be expected by this point, but the saddest part is that this movie actually does have some potential. There’s value in exploring how much the Minions fuck up and why Gru sticks with them regardless. There even is some genuine comedy in some of the bits (particularly from Bob, who has always been the one Minion to have any depth to his character), including a rather clever sight gag about how the Minions were taken in by Gru, a delightfully silly background joke in one of the casual scenes of Otto’s mayhem, and some honestly cute use of “puppy dog eyes.”
But most of all, there’s something that approaches poignancy in the idea of Wild Knuckles acting as an antagonist to Gru before becoming a mentor to him. The last Minions film ends with Gru stealing the British Crown, which by that movie’s own rules makes him the UK monarch (the crown is prominently displayed in Gru’s proto-lair), but for the purposes of retconning, young Felonius is still firmly in the mode of pulling pranks (a fart bomb in a movie theatre or a spray cheese gun, for example) rather than committing acts of genuine menace and villainy. As such, there’s something worthwhile in seeing an older baddie, one coming to grips with his age and perceptions of his obsolescence, taking an eager protégé under his wing to not only show him the ropes of the villain lifestyle, but to teach him valuable lessons in trust and loyalty, the so-called “honor among thieves,” if you will.
If THAT had been the movie, I’d come dangerously close to recommending it. Instead, it’s basically one scene and a few lines of dialogue that only exists to break up the sheer inanity of bits like Kevin casually hijacking a plane, or Yeoh’s character using acupuncture to slap Stuart in the face for kid-friendly sexual harassment. It’s especially galling because when you see these hints of something actually thoughtful, it takes what we all expected would be a throwaway piece of garbage and turns it infuriatingly into a missed opportunity. It shows that the studio KNOWS that they can make something of quality, but they actively choose not to in favor of banal toilet humor.
I’d say that this film represents the rock bottom of the franchise, but that just means the Minions would only giggle incessantly at my use of the word, “bottom.” It truly boggles the mind sometimes how easy it is to not fuck something up, and yet the only consistency is how often it finds new and frustrating ways to do just that. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Minions: The Rise of Gru actually had a chance to be good, maybe even great. But like the worst villains in the real world, the film constantly takes the easy, lazy way out every chance it gets, leaving us with a devastatingly disappointing hint of what might have been while they count your money.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Can you get past the series’ flaws to still find the Minions enjoyable? How many bananas can you eat before you get sick? Let me know!