The Rise of Gru is gorgeously animated and has fun with its ’70s setting, but there’s a clear vein of laziness that keeps it from appealing much to non-kiddos.
The minions — those small, yellow, tic-tac-looking hooligans that speak in gibberish — have somehow proven an omnipresent part of American pop culture ever since their first appearance in 2010’s animated action-comedy Despicable Me, courtesy of Illumination Animation. Initially relegated to the sidelines for occasional bits of extended physical comedy, their popularity proved so immense that, in 2015, the gaseous misfits were awarded their own feature film, which ultimately proved to be too much of a good thing (if indeed you found them good to begin with). But having made over a billion dollars worldwide, a sequel was inevitable, and so, after a two-year, Covid-induced hiatus, the world has finally been gifted Minions: The Rise of Gru, an especially nifty achievement considering the minions themselves were initially revealed to be a creation by amateur inventor Gru and not the globe-trotting species dating back to the origins of the universe that the series suddenly made them out to be. All of this malarkey is relevant only because The Rise of Gru is actually a prequel, detailing how the minions’ master — the nefarious but ultimately good-hearted Gru (Steve Carell) — got his start in the career of villainy.
The year is 1976. A group of super-villains known as The Vicious Six are wreaking worldwide havoc, desperate to obtain a magical gold medallion containing the symbols of the Zodiac calendar that will grant them superpowers upon the midnight strike of the upcoming Chinese New Year. An opening-film heist sequence straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark sees the group betraying their eldest member, Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin), who is left for dead after obtaining said medallion. The sudden vacancy leads to the necessary recruitment of a new member, a position which 11-year-old Gru sees as his ticket to eternal infamy. But things don’t go entirely as planned, mainly because the members see the young boy as, quite understandably, a child. In order to prove his despicable nature, Gru steals the sacred treasure, which leads to him being both pursued by The Vicious Six and kidnapped by Wild Knuckles, who is enacting his own revenge plot. Unfortunately, Gru no longer possesses the medallion, because the minion he entrusted it to — braces-laden and motor-mouthed Otto (Pierre Coffin) — exchanged it for a sexy pet rock. Outraged, Gru shuns the minions, with best pals Kevin, Stuart, and Bob (all voiced by Coffin) making it their mission to rescue their boss, all in an effort to prove their worth.
If this sounds rather convoluted, make no mistake, it is, although director Kyle Balda and screenwriter Matthew Fogel keep things moving at a zippy enough pace, allowing the brief 87-minute runtime to thankfully fly by. The most peculiar trait of Minions: The Rise of Gru, however, is found in the various ways in which the narrative keeps sidelining our titular heroes, focusing more on Gru’s burgeoning, father/son-like relationship with Wild Knuckles than the minions’ various attempts to rescue him. Sure, we get a few extended bits here and there, such as a cross-country flight to San Francisco where the yellow con artists pose as pilots, or their insistence on learning martial arts at the hands of a diminutive and elderly yet still kick-ass Kung Fu master named Chow (Michelle Yeoh), but the film seems as half-interested in these developments as audiences are likely to be, a lot of visual busyness that distracts more than it engages. The animation is as gorgeous as ever, the character design a combination of sharp angles and over-exaggerated curves that, when coupled with the impressively realistic textures, creates a starkly unique look and feel that stands out in the current animated landscape. The action sequences are likewise appropriately slick, although edited with too heavy a hand, while the core voicework is as solid as is to be expected.
But there remains a laziness at the heart of The Rise of Gru, the type of film where the casting of Yeoh as a martial arts expert does all the heavy lifting, and where simply having her character walk on some tree limbs for a brief moment is supposed to engender cinematic nostalgia in its adult audience members. It doesn’t help that a lot of the film’s big action beats are predicated on the endangerment of a child, and giving him an entirely hateful mother — voiced by Julie Andrews, of all people — who outright neglects and verbally abuses him seems especially cruel. The ‘70s setting allows for a few moments of inspired lunacy, including a couple of admittedly very funny era-appropriate needle drops, and this writer is always up for a strong-willed, afro-sporting, Foxy Brown-inspired female character by the name of Belle Bottom (voiced by professional bad-ass Taraji P. Henson). But what’s entirely unforgivable is that the voice talents of a group as eclectic as Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Lucy Lawless, and Danny Trejo are completely wasted. Minions: The Rise of Gru will certainly appeal to its intended audience of children — and, thanks to Tik-Tok, the groups of young men known as “GentleMinions” who attend screenings in large groups while dressed in formal wear. Everyone else will chuckle a few times and mentally prepare the upcoming week’s shopping list, grateful the proceedings aren’t nearly as bad as they could have been.