Conceptually, the character of Gru is a lot of fun. A supervillain with limitless determination to be as completely and wholly evil as possible, except he’s consistently incapable of actual malevolence and in all honesty is kind of a big softie. He has a goofy assistant that makes wacky gadgets, a bizarre alien-looking dog named Kyle, and he lives in a comically macabre home with a massive evil lair beneath it. Genuinely, there’s promise there – certainly there’s many animated family franchises that have done far worse in the ideas department. Despicable Me (2010) coasts on that concept, ultimately let down by ugly animation and poorly written arcs, but it turns a determined villain into a sweet dad who just wants to protect his girls, and has some fun flirting with the villainous machinations throughout. For better or worse, Despicable Me also gave us the Minions. Every villain has their henchmen, and Gru has his indeterminately sized army of jabbering yellow jellybeans with big goggles and blue denim overalls. Twelve years down the road from their first appearance, we’ve arrived at their second standalone project, and now the theaters are overflowing with eager fans dressing to the nines for the event of the year: The glorious return of the Minions.
In the internet age, when a joke lasts long enough, it becomes more and more obfuscated behind the dizzying layers of irony and sarcasm, and eventually it seems to even blur for those involved in the first place. For anyone not in on the joke, from the outside it’s impossible to tell how serious anyone is really being, or even where the joke is at all. It’s how it feels with the Minions – a joke with no discernable purpose or reason, the excitement is hard to follow over what so recently were the just the stars of your most annoying relative’s latest Facebook post. At a certain point it doesn’t really matter, it just becomes an unending deluge, a muddled mix of sincerity, sarcasm, and hatred, and the only thing left to do is find out for yourself.
Conversely, the Minions are completely insufferable conceptually. The annoying children’s character that appears in every one of these kinds of films; colorful, lowbrow, grating, and just a cheap machine to crank out easy jokes for the kids to chuckle at. Except they’re actually kind of charming. They’re harmless and honestly endearing in spite of it all. Their antics provide the animators with ample opportunity to play fast and loose with the rules and lets them sneak in just enough fun gags with an earnest energy that never feels excessive. Despicable Me 2 (2013) has visual gags that reference Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Alien (1979) and The Blues Brothers (1980). Minions (2015) does a Singin’ in the Rain (1952) gag, and the Minions even don Game of Death (1978) jumpsuits for a short kung-fu sequence. Honestly, as long as the Minions are mostly just a vehicle for a few silly moments and a game of “spot the film reference,” there’s not much reason to dislike them.
Minions (2015) is the exact opposite of that, putting these comic relief characters in the front seat and expecting them to do the heavy lifting, turning them from the surprisingly enjoyable secondary characters into the frustratingly insufferable and grating characters you expected them to be in the first place. Furthermore, the film is plagued with contrived prequel syndrome where a multitude of things attempt to be spelled out for the sake of continuity, resulting in a lot of incoherent nonsense. Perhaps it’s not worth digging so deep into the long history of the Minions in order to arrive at a cogent point about The Rise of Gru, but what this film does do successfully is return the Minions to side characters. Really, it’s a movie about young Gru and his first outing as an adolescent supervillain – and it’s still packed with prequel contrivances, but they’re much more palatable when everything in the periphery isn’t so exhausting.
Minions: The Rise of Gru is not a good film. Really, none of these are. They’re built on a conceptually sound foundation that rides out a perfectly decent 90 minutes every few years with a series of silly gadgets and new ways to pronounce things like ‘hello,’ or ‘San Francisco.’ Here, the villainy is drenched in ‘70s psychedelia and martial arts, a well formed visual language surrounded by hordes of yellow Minions. Young Gru (Steve Carrell) is undeniably adorable, now coasting on the concept of a young boy who idolizes the world’s greatest villains and aspires to join them as if they were Queen or The Beatles. It’s unfortunate that the narrative is so passively uninterested in progressing anything in favor of focusing entirely on moving characters around to new joke locations or rote scenarios that can explain how Gru met his assistant and acquired his trademark car, and eventually you might as well forget that there’s any narrative at all – but that’s fine. It’s bad, and you can’t really convince yourself otherwise, but you chuckle nonetheless at just enough of the antics in between to have a fun time. If nothing else, you get to see Michelle Yeoh teaching kung fu to Minions, and that’s as good a reason as any to see anything.