Movie Review ~ Minions: The Rise of Gru

The Facts:

Synopsis: The untold story of one twelve-year-old’s dream to become the world’s greatest supervillain.
Stars: Steve Carell, Pierre Coffin, Taraji P. Henson, Michelle Yeoh, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lucy Lawless, Dolph Lundgren, Danny Trejo, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Alan Arkin
Director: Kyle Balda
Rated: PG
Running Length: 87 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  It surprised me how much I had enjoyed 2010’s Despicable Me, primarily because by the time that non-PIXAR/Disney film arrived, I was long out of the target audience for its colorfully wacky shenanigans. Following Gru, a supervillain and his tiny yellow minions who are changed when he takes in three orphaned children, it spawned two sequels and launched the goofy golden sidekicks into their own spin-off in 2015. While I had enjoyed the sequels (and even the eye-popping, brain-shaking Minions ride at Universal Studios Florida), I found that outing for the Minions pre-Gru to be lackluster and missing some of the charms that made the Despicable Me films so engaging. Even boasting the voice of Sandra Bullock in a rare villainous turn couldn’t sway the movie in my favor. 

Seven years and one major global pandemic later, we have Minions: The Rise of Gru, and returning director Kyle Balda and writer Brian Lynch (co-scripting with Matthew Fogel) have learned a bit since their last Minion-centered adventure. Far funnier than any previous franchise entry, it wisely retains a period setting (adjusting slightly into the mid ‘70s) and begins to weave threads of early Gru (Steve Carrell, Foxcatcher) into the mix. That makes it less of a Minions-only movie and slightly more akin to a bona fide Despicable Me prequel, but with main Minions, Kevin, Stuart, and Bob (all voiced, as all Minions are, by Pierre Coffin) primarily driving the action, fans clamoring for more of the banana loving creatures will get their fill.

The year is 1976, and the Vicious 6 is a top criminal organization being watched by the Anti-Villain League. Led by Easy Rider-ish Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin, Indian Summer), the remaining crew is comprised of Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson, What Men Want), Jean Clawed (Jean-Claude Van Damme, The Last Mercenary), Nunchuck (Lucy Lawless), Svengeance (Dolph Lundgren, Aquaman), and Stronghold (Danny Trejo, The Legend of La Llorona). Hunting for a stone that harnesses the power of the Chinese Zodiac, the group faces a division that leaves them down a member, an opening that Gru hopes to fill. The trouble is, he’s only 11 and still in school. 

With the help of his trustworthy Minions, who will do anything for their leader, Gru first sets out to join the Vicious 6, but after finding out they aren’t as welcoming as he’d hoped, he winds up on the run from them. While Gru goes in search of assistance from an unlikely source that knows the inner workings of the Vicious 6, Kevin, Stuart, and Bob receive education in Kung Fu from a former teacher, now acupuncturist Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh, Gunpowder Milkshake). All will need to be at full force to face what’s coming toward them, a crime ring of villains with an ancient power they are ready to wield at anyone daring to challenge them.

For most of the running time, Minions: The Rise of Gru is a breezy bit of comic mayhem that takes every opportunity to capitalize on the appeal of the jibber-jabbering of the titular characters. Their amalgam of languages and speech will never be truly deciphered, yet you understand them all the same. When in doubt, Balda/Fogel/Lynch shows a Minions yellow rear end and lets the laughs rip…and at least in my audience, the effect of seeing the little round butt worked like a charm on the kids who roared with hilarity each time. It’s not a sophisticated comedy for the most part (though again, as in the last film, Balda has the Minions gibber through a surprisingly adept song in their native tongue), but it lets the 87-minute film fly by with ease.

What doesn’t work in quite the same way is a scary finale that comes out of nowhere, and parents will likely want to keep an eye on their kids to see how they react to a slew of creatures who pop up for a battle royale with Gru and the gang. The animation in the sequence is dazzling, but it’s an oddly intense passage to have when so much of the overall vibe has been chill. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t say that it’s disappointing to see Yeoh slogging her way through yet another “wise combat teacher” role she’s played countless times before. Coming on the heels of a career-best (and maybe Oscar-winning?) role in Everything Everywhere All At Once, this feels like a giant step backward. 

I’ll spare you the extra sit and say that once the final credit crawl gets underway, you can head home, but stay through those first few minutes after the movie ends for a bit of fun. It’s another way the filmmakers behind this series think in complete sentences throughout. These movies may not sit on the same shelf as the emotionally complex features from the heyday of Walt Disney Pictures or even the more modern classics at Pixar. They are indeed quite entertaining, though, and that’s often worth more than any number of tears that those films can wring from our emotions. Minions: The Rise of Gru ranks higher than the previous film and is one of the strongest in the overall Despicable Me franchise. If I had to choose between this and Lightyear, I’d want to watch the little yella fellas have their fun again.

Movie Review ~ Mr. Malcolm’s List

The Facts:

Synopsis: When she fails to meet an item on his list of requirements for a bride, Julia Thistlewaite is jilted by London’s most eligible bachelor, Mr. Malcolm. Feeling humiliated and determined to exact revenge, she convinces her friend Selina Dalton to play the role of his ideal match. Soon, Mr. Malcolm wonders whether he’s found the perfect woman…or the perfect hoax.
Stars: Freida Pinto, Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Ashley Park, Zawe Ashton, Theo James
Director: Emma Holly Jones
Rated: PG
Running Length: 115 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  The story of how Mr. Malcom’s List arrived on the screen is one of those old-fashioned Hollywood success stories built on gumption and grit. Writer Suzanne Allain adapted her self-published novel from 2009 into a script that she submitted to be placed on The Black List, a highly coveted survey of the best-unproduced scripts which attract top studio and filmmaker interest. When director Emma Holly Jones caught wind of it, she gathered the right people to get the rights to make the film, first making a short adaptation available on YouTube that you can watch here, along with the other 2 million others who have already seen it.

With the proven success of that short, not only did Allain’s original novel get an official publication from a top publishing house, but a feature film was greenlit and is now being released as a mid-summer bit of counter-programming. The timing couldn’t be better because the flirt and froth of the piece feel like the light cleansing we needed, but that’s not to say this Jane Austen meets Bridgerton romantic comedy of manners is all fun and games. As glorious as the vistas are (cinematography from Tony Miller is genuinely breathtaking) and as appealing as much of the cast is, there’s an overall feeling of small-ness that audiences can’t ignore.

A great injustice has been done to poor Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton, Greta)…at least in the eyes of Julia Thistlewaite. The oh-so-dreamy, oh-so-eligible, and oh-so-rich Mr. Malcolm has rejected her because she does not measure up to an, until now, unknown list of requirements he has for a bride. This news was told to her by Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Invisible Man), a friend of Malcolm’s who has seen said list and knows its contents. Frustrated at her lack of landing the bachelor every woman wants, Julia is determined to pay him back his just reward. So she employs her long-time best friend, Selina Dalton (Frida Pinto, Needle in a Timestack), to not only meet his requirements but, in a feat of triumph, reject him with a list of Julia’s own making once he has fallen for her, or, rather, Selina. 

Of course, romantic entanglements are never as simple as the best-laid plans, and sweet Selina needs little help with being an ideal partner for Mr. Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù, His House). As the two fall in love and Selina begins to see it is Julia that needs the reality check, her allegiance to her friend at a time when women couldn’t afford to be so free with their future prospects becomes a most challenging problem indeed. The arrival of an old Selina suitor (Theo James, Archive) complicates matters, and when he starts to set his sights on Julia, who is too focused on Malcolm to see love can spring from many corners, the stage is set for several comeuppances and heartbreak.

I still haven’t watched the original short at the time of this writing, but I imagine it would have the same good heart and intentions as this full-length feature. There’s a lovely shine to almost every frame of the film, and Jones directs her actors to delightful performances, though I wasn’t sold on Pinto’s gentle modernity. As good as Ashton is as the scheming Julia, I think swapping roles with Pinto might have worked better. Dìrísù continues to shine with each role and his befuddlement at finally finding the woman he seeks and breathing a sigh of relief his love journey has come to an end is playful and, most pivotal, believable. 

Yet at 115 minutes, the movie drags, especially around the sixty-minute mark, when we can see where things are headed and await the inevitable conclusion that arrives with little surprises. The only major flame fanned in the final act is a notable performance from Doña Croll as Malcolm’s mother, keenly aware her son is putting too many roadblocks in his path to love. I wish Croll had more scenes because she brought life to a film that was starting to tamper out. It does spring back nicely as it closes, even finishing with a credits sequence that tells an entire next chapter in the lives of our characters – critical developments if you have been as invested in Mr. Malcom’s List as the filmmakers hope you would be. I think most moviegoers, especially those waiting for Bridgerton Season 3, will enjoy this for the palette cleanser it is. If only it were filling at the same time.