The Minions may be for kids, but something about them speaks to those of us with a bit more mileage, too. The murmuring polyglot gibberish of Minionspeak and the baroque incompetence of these happy yellow homunculi promise a reprieve from a world of logic and order. Kids enjoy the Minions because for them, the land of reason is still a foreign place. Adults enjoy the Minions (well, those of us adults who do enjoy the Minions, at any rate) because the land of reason is a prison, and we’ll take any escape from it we can, however brief or vicarious.
So the best thing I can say about Minions: The Rise of Gru is that it understands this fundamental truth. The film, directed by Kyle Balda, doesn’t bog down in plot or narrative coherence or world-building despite that portentous title. Yes, it does ostensibly tell the story of how a very young Gru (still voiced by Steve Carell), the supervillain-in-name-only hero of the Despicable Me series, became an honest-to-goodness baddie. But, really, the movie is just an excuse for nutty Minion mayhem, and it knows it. If only the mayhem itself were a bit more inspired.
The setup, too nonsensical to describe in much detail, involves the 11 ¾-year-old Gru stealing the so-called zodiac stone from the Vicious 6, the league of villains that has rejected his membership. (“Evil is for adults who steal powerful stones and wreak havoc, not for tubby little punks who should be at school learning, taking a recess, sucking their thumbs!”) So the Vicious 6, led by the sassy Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson) and featuring such evocatively named members as Jean Clawed (Jean-Claude Van Damme), Nun-Chuck (Lucy Lawless), and Svengeance (Dolph Lundgren), comes after Gru. So too does the former leader of the group, Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin), an aging hippie who was the one who found the zodiac stone in the first place.
Alas, the Minions have lost the zodiac stone along the way because one of them traded it for a pet rock he happened to fall in love with. In order to retrieve the zodiac stone, however, they mu … Argh. See? I’m doing it. I’m doing that thing where I try to explain the plot of a goddamn Minions movie. Suffice it to say, this is a picture in which assorted Minions commandeer a passenger airplane, learn kung fu, fall in with bikers, and pretty much raze San Francisco to the ground. The story is pure nonsense, intercutting between various subplots that might as well be following dream logic, because they for sure aren’t following any real logic.
So the structure is built for maximum silliness. And the film pops visually as well. Much as 2015’s Minions went all-in on a nostalgic, space-age ’60s-cocktail-lounge aesthetic, The Rise of Gru embraces its ’70s setting: It’s all beads, ’fros, and platforms. The soundtrack spins assorted hits from the period (one of the Minions, as it so happens, is a DJ — don’t ask), and the style nods to martial-arts flicks, blaxploitation, road movies, gritty cop dramas, as well as the familiar, retro secret-agent iconography to which all the Despicable Me pictures have owed a debt. The visual charm of these films has always been their secret weapon. The frantic animation adds to the Surrealism.
And now for the bad news. For all its efforts at wild humor, The Rise of Gru never quite builds up a comic head of steam. It’s filled with laugh lines, but they feel like placeholders — a lot of middling bits about the time period plus a tired assortment of anachronisms. (A “Don’t Tase me, bro” gag would have felt outdated and overdone ten years ago.) This is very much a see-what-sticks approach to comedy, which only really works if enough great jokes land to make us forget the groaners. That’s what makes stupid humor so hard to pull off: Because when you’re trying to be dumb, it’s all too easy to slide into laziness; inspired idiocy requires wit and invention. Minions: The Rise of Gru passes the time — it looks nice, the kids will enjoy it, and, at 87 minutes, it all goes down relatively smoothly — but it’s not quite smart enough to be as stupid as it wants to be.
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