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 ~ Minions

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Minions Stuart, Kevin and Bob are recruited by Scarlet Overkill, a super-villain who, alongside her inventor husband Herb, hatches a plot to take over the world.

Stars: Michael Keaton, Steve Coogan, Allison Janney, Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Saunders, Pierre Coffin, Steve Carell

Director: Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin

Rated: PG

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  In my review of 2013’s Despicable Me 2, I mentioned that the filmmakers succeeded in making an enjoyable sequel because of their understanding of exactly what the audience wanted…more Minions.  After Despicable Me 2 broke big at the box office, a third film was set for release in 2017 but in the interim a spin-off animated adventure has been created that focuses solely on how the Minions came to serve their not-quite-so evil master Gru.  You’d think that the most enjoyable elements from the first two films would be a slam-dunk when given their own film…but it turns out that sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone.

Look, I loved the Minions in the first two films and laughed at their gibberish language and love of bananas as much as the next easily pleased adult in the audience.  Heck, I even waited in line for a considerable time in a light drizzle for a spot on the Minion Mayhem ride at Universal Studios in Florida.  It’s clear, though, that these were characters that worked better in their featured supporting roles and aren’t quite ready for headlining their own film.

The opening credits show the genesis of the Minions as they emerge from a prehistoric ocean and start their quest to serve the baddest of bad guys throughout time.  Their bumbling winds up offing their masters throughout history, though, from a T-Rex to Dracula to Napoleon and eventually they find themselves exiled into a cave frozen over with ice where they languish without a villainous boss to serve.  Not content with just lying around any longer, during the ‘60s the resourceful Kevin recruits two of his compatriots (Stuart and Bob) to venture out in search of an evil genius they can attend to.

Starting out in New York before heading to Florida and then England, the film follows the three pals as they become involved with the first female supervillain, Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock, Gravity) as she plots to overthrow the British monarchy.  Owing a little bit of its plot to King Ralph, the final half of film has the Minions first trying to help Overkill steal The Crown Jewels and then staving her off as she goes mad with newfound power.

Like the previous two entries in the Despicable Me universe, Minions feels too long even at the relatively short 91 minutes.  I was checking my watch before it was half over, a bad omen for a film not lacking in color or 3D distraction. (Like its predecessors, this one is worth the 3D upcharge…but make sure to stay until the final credits have passed for some impressive 3D effects.)  Directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin (who also voices every last Minion…totaling almost 1,000!) seem to know they don’t have enough material for a full-length feature so there are more than a few pit stops along the way, such as Stuart leading some Royal Guards in a sing-a-long to, randomly, a selection from the musical Hair.

The voice talent also is disappointingly underwhelming.  I was looking forward to Bullock’s performance but didn’t get much from her.  Like Frozen, the voices never seemed to really match their animated counterparts so you have the voices of talented actors like Bullock, Michael Keaton (RoboCop), Allison Janney (The Way Way Back), Jon Hamm (Million Dollar Arm), and Steve Coogan (Philomena) coming awkwardly out of designs that don’t sound totally correct.

It’s in the final five minutes where the movie shows some signs of life, not surprisingly it’s the part that acts as a bridge between Minions and Despicable Me, by that time I was just ready to get up and go so it’s a credit to the film that it finished up strong.  Still, in a summer that’s shown that there’s a case to be made for successful sequels, Minions is an example of how a spin-off (even one with good intentions) isn’t always the wisest route to take.  I’m sure the film will rake in a buttload of cash, though, so I hope that Despicable Me 3 puts the Minions back to work at what they do best…support the action rather than lead it.

Movie Review ~ Despicable Me 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to help deal with a powerful new super criminal.

Stars: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Russell Brand, Steve Coogan, Ken Jeong, Benjamin Bratt

Director: Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin

Rated: PG

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: It’s unfortunate that every computer animated movie needs to be compared to a PIXAR film.  True, PIXAR is clearly the gold standard of CG animation with their endlessly inventive technique and knack for tapping into story and characters that stick with the audience.  Over the years numerous studios have tried and mostly failed to capture that same magic.

I remember going in 2010’s Despicable Me with a bit of a grumpy attitude – here was yet another animated 3D film with A-List voices that would probably wear out its welcome before the first reel was over.  So you’d imagine my surprise when I found myself engaging with the movie and enjoying every minute of it.  With its crisp animation and sprightly voice talent a delightfully entertaining movie emerged and though it failed to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, its huge box-office take did allow Universal Studios and Illumination Entertainment (who also made the impressive Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax in 2012) to inch closer into PIXAR’s corner of the market.

Raking in millions pretty much guarantees a sequel for any movie released in this modern era so it’s not totally shocking that we find ourselves three years later with Despicable Me 2 and while it isn’t quite as on the button as its predecessor, it comes very close thanks to director Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin’s understanding of what the audience wants more of.

That would be The Minions.  The little yellow scamps that speak their own language and have a playful way of interacting pretty much steal the show…which is exactly what they were designed to do.  This being a sequel you have to give the audience something bigger and more substantial so the significance of these little imps has grown and they provide a large percentage of the laughs in a film that has plenty to spare.

Now the father to three orphaned girls, the one-time villain Gru (again voiced in a thick European accent by Steve Carrell, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and The Way Way Back) is settling into life as a single dad.  What I appreciated about the film is how it didn’t go the expected route and make the sequel all about the fatherhood angle but skillfully lets that part of Gru’s life continue to develop even as he’s called into action by the Anti-Villain League when a deadly formula is stolen from a top secret arctic research lab.

Going undercover at Paradise Mall (which looks like a snow globe and contains shops like Bake My Day) he’s teamed with a goofy agent voiced by Kristen Wiig (who, incidentally, voiced a different character in the first film) and they soon find themselves uncovering not only a plot to take over the world but a burgeoning romance of unrequited love.

It’s a fairly standard set-up that in lesser hands may have resulted in a movie that would soon take up space in the $5 bin at Target.  What keeps the  movie moving ever forward is it’s fast-paced jokes that give our stars nice room to flex their comic vocal chops and the animators room to be as creative as they want within the mall. Though the film does have a breakneck pace, I did find it a little long at 98 minutes – cutting out one or two extraneous subplots could have had this one clocking in about ten minutes shorter without losing any of the elements that work nicely.

Like the original, Despicable Me 2 is being released in 3D and there’s a case to be made of paying the up-charge to the 3D format.  Not only does the technology give the viewer more depth in some precisely designed scenes but the end-credits sequence has impressive effects that had young audience members (and at least one old one) reaching out to pop a bubble or dodge a flying object.

With its colorfully created world the movie will appeal to young children as much as its James Bond-y plot might speak to young teens and adults.  In a world of sequels that don’t measure up to the original, Despicable Me 2 is recommended as a worthy follow-up of solid entertainment.

The Silver Bullet ~ Despicable Me 2

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Synopsis: Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to help deal with a powerful new super criminal.

Release Date:  July 3, 2013

Thoughts: I was a surprising fan of 2010’s Despicable Me, finding its skewed humor fit nicely within the animation created by Dreamworks Studios.  Like the penguins from Madagascar, the tiny yellow imps that are the secondary characters here threaten to steal the film out from under our main hero/villain and that’s AOK with me.  After the bomb that was The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Steve Carell must be thanking his lucky stars he has this film coming up in June because this one is a sure-fire bet to clean-up at the box office.