Minions: The Rise of Gru

In this prequel sequel, Gru (Steve Carrel) is intent on joining the Vicious6, a group of super villains who have deep-sixed their leader, Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin).  Even though the minions have given Gru nothing but unwavering loyalty and dedication to his cause, he doesn’t believe that the minions are ready for prime time.  What 11 & ¾ year-old kid doesn’t need some help becoming a supervillain?  As for Wild Knuckles, he’s furious that the team he founded tried to kill him.  If you haven’t guessed, Minions: The Rise of Gru is about loyalty.  Well, it’s about loyalty in those moments when it isn’t hilariously funny.

After the Vicious6 mock Gru, he steals the Zodiac Stone from them.  (The stone bestows awesome power upon whoever wields it.)  His plan is to return it and win a spot on the team.  Naturally, that plan goes terribly wrong when he’s kidnapped by Knuckles and taken to San Francisco.  The minions set out to retrieve the stone and rescue Gru, which requires two separate cross-country treks that are equally hilarious.  Just like the Looney Tunes cartoons of old, the filmmakers have embraced a potent mix of childlike innocence and anarchy.  Along the way, a trio of minions are “taught” kung fu by Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh).  Eventually she realizes that they are indestructible and just need to learn how to find their “inner beast”.  Of course, the finale includes a no-holds-barred battle between the Zodiac-powered V6 and the minions in the middle of a Chinese New Year’s Day parade.  Who ultimately wins may not be a surprise, but how they manage to win is just, well, funny stuff.

Before seeing this movie, I had only caught a few minutes of Despicable Me and the commercials for the sequels.  That I was able to follow along with the plot of this movie is a testament to 1) how straight-forward the concept of these movies are, and 2) how fully this franchise has saturated my media consciousness.  M:TROG is the fifth entry in this franchise, and I see no reason why they can’t keep doing more of these.  This movie is set in 1976, which means there are several more decades to mine for period-based laughs.  Carrel is great as the voice of Gru, and I hope he never gets tired of making these movies.  Michelle Yeoh is also a lot of fun as Master Chow, the kung fu instructor.  She’s been on quite a roll recently.  Recommended.

Bello! A funny thing happened while I watched Minions: The Rise of Gru.  No, I’m not referring to the use of a “cheese ray”.  In spite of never having watched any of the preceding entries, I was able to follow the plot and thoroughly enjoy the movie.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  I watched the first ten minutes of Despicable Me years ago before turning it off.  I assumed it was another animated film for children filled with fart jokes.  (M:TROG has several of those, by the way.)  If you’re reading this and you happen to be a longtime fan of this franchise, please resist the urge to ping me to say that this franchise has always been about more than crude humor.  From here on out, consider me one of the converted.

Aside from that ten minute introduction to Gru and his minions way back when, everything else I learned about this franchise came from the commercials.  First, Gru was a supervillain, maybe Dr. Evil’s Hungarian cousin.  Second, his henchmen were the minions, a race of yellow beings who spoke a combination of gibberish and pseudo-English.  Third, they worked together to achieve despicable outcomes.  Finally, sometime after 2017’s Despicable Me 3, the producers of the series decided to give the minions top billing.  That move made sense, because if there’s anything children will always be interested in watching, it’s funny-looking characters doing silly things.  Slapstick humor never goes out of style, no matter how much parents want to protect their kids from watching “violent content”.

In many ways, the minions remind me of The Three Stooges, if the Stooges were two-to-three feet high, completely yellow and wore bib overalls.  (They are described as twinkies and tater tots in this movie.)  The minions are more than just “hammer to the head” funny, though, expressing a combination of innocence and anarchy surprisingly similar to that of the Marx Brothers.  I realize that comparing the minions to the classic vaudeville acts of the past sounds like quite a stretch, consider these examples:

  • The minions, while dressed in drag and pitching Tupperware to other housewives, “burp” the items to reproduce “The Conversation” from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
  • Minion Otto, when tasked with following a character wearing an object that must be retrieved in order to save Gru, hops aboard a Big Wheel and frantically rides it cross-country.
  • Minions Kevin, Stuart and Bob, when unable to purchase tickets to fly to “San Pan-Pisco”, dress up as a flight crew and hijack a jet.  They then get it to lift off while humming “The Blue Danube” and randomly pushing buttons.
  • One Minion (I can’t remember which), while dressed up as a flight attendant, offers each passenger only one, solitary peanut.  (If that isn’t directly influenced by the Marx Brothers, I don’t know what is.)

I could go on, but I don’t want to spoil all the fun.  And that is primarily what M:TROG is: silly fun.  Like most modern animated features for kids, the movie does have some lessons to impart, but it doesn’t belabor them at the expense of laughs, of which there are many.

M:TROG begins with several nods to its source of inspiration, the Austin Powers movies. (Goldmember came out in 2002 and Despicable Me arrived in 2010.)  The scene is 1976, and “Shining Star” by Earth, Wind & Fire fills the soundtrack.  An African American woman named Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson) narrowly eludes law enforcement while en route to a secret lair underneath a record store called Criminal Records.  (If puns are triggering for you, I have to say there are plenty more on the way.)

Belle Bottom, who resembles Beyonce’s Foxy Cleopatra, is a member of the criminal gang known as the Vicious6 (or V6), which is led by seasoned bad guy Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin).  I couldn’t help thinking that his name should have been “Harry Knuckles”, but that would have made him sound like a gangster or character in a porno movie.  But I digress.  Bottom has just stolen a map to a mystical object called the Zodiac Stone.  The stone gives whoever wields it incredible power, and Knuckles wants to use it to give himself and his gang the ability to take down their arch-nemesis, the Anti Villain League.

The stone is located in China, which I’m guessing was the movie’s attempt to broaden its appeal to the biggest theatrical market in the world.  The V6 fly there and wait while Knuckles retrieves the stone himself, fighting off a small army of robots (“deadly tchotchkes”) on his way out.  After rescuing him, the rest of the gang betray him.  Having grown tired of being ordered around by an old man, they take the stone for themselves and dispatch Knuckles with a fall that should have killed him.  (Maybe he used his fearsome knuckles to break his fall?)

A colorful and stylish title sequence that harkens back to James Bond appears, with a song sung in Mandarin (another bit of China outreach). Next, M:TROG takes us to the American suburbs, where the 11 & ¾ year-old Gru (Steve Carell) tolerates his dull grade school existence as best as he can.  His classmates mock his desire to become a supervillain, another knowing reference to Dr. Evil.  Fortunately, the minions are there to greet him when school gets out and pick up his spirits.  They help Gru partake in some minor mischief, in particular helping to clear out a showing of Jaws with a fart bomb.  (As I said, there are a couple of these in the movie.  Yes, I chuckled at all of them.)

The news that the V6 is looking for a replacement for Wild Knuckles has Gru’s hopes up.  They are his favorite supervillain gang, and he would like nothing more than to become a member.  Gru has big dreams, which far exceed living in the suburbs with his mom (Julie Andrews).  I’m not sure why his mom has an English accent, though.  Was Gru adopted?  (That’s too heavy a subject for a movie like this.)  I admit that I was a bit shocked that the filmmakers managed to include a joke based on Gru discovering his mother having sex and still get a PG rating.  (It was just a heated yoga session, thankfully.)

To their credit, the minions have been working hard to build their mini-boss a secret lair, humming and working tirelessly to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia”.  The scene reminded me of the Seven Dwarfs in their caverns, with a bit more bite to it.  As a concept, the minions definitely are sort of a cultural Cuisinart, which is brilliant because it easily extends their appeal beyond children.

When the day comes for Gru’s interview, he tells Stuart, Kevin and Bob (his minion “braintrust”) that he wants to do his interview solo.  This comes off as a bit unfair, since they want nothing more than for Gru to succeed.  However, Gru does witness how the minions act on a daily basis.  For example, one minion sets another on fire, turning his head into a campfire marshmallow.  (He doesn’t seem to mind it, though.)  The minions may be inept at times, but Gru’s decision clearly marks hubris.

Gru arrives at Criminal Records and is greeted by Nefario (Russell Brand).  (He eventually becomes Gru’s evil scientist in the Despicable Me movies.)  Nefario gives Gru a single (or 45 RPM record) of Linda Rondstant’s “You’re No Good” and guides him to a listening booth.  (I actually remember those.)  Nefario tells Gru to play the record backwards, something I remember doing but that I suspect younger audiences won’t get.

Gru is clearly gobsmacked to meet his favorite group of supervillains and make his case for replacing his favorite member, Wild Knuckles.  (I couldn’t identify the actors behind the members of the V6 while watching the movie, and was genuinely surprised to learn who they were during the closing credits.)  Unfortunately, the V6 see Gru as just a “tubby little punk” who should be at school learning.  Bottom states in no uncertain terms that being a supervillain is something for adults, particularly those who steal things like the Zodiac Stone.  She tells Gru to come back when he’s done something impressive and is dismissed for the next applicant, Wing Man.  And here I thought wing men were always forces of good…times?

Gru takes advantage of the ensuing chaos to steal the Zodiac stone.  He naively believes that the V6 will take him on as their newest member when he brings it back to them.  Of course, all Gru has done is put a target on his back for the V6 and Wild Knuckles.  Yep, he survived that fall in China, made it back to San Francisco and witnessed Gru avoiding capture by the V6.  Unsurprisingly, the childlike Otto traded the Zodiac Stone for a pet rock.  (This is just the first of the movie’s uncanny connections to Everything Everywhere All At Once.)  

Otto’s actions only confirm Gru’s belief that the minions are not ready for prime time.  When he storms off to retrieve the stone, he’s quickly abducted by Wild Knuckles’ crew and taken to San Francisco.  Knuckles tells the minions to bring the Zodiac Stone to him in 48 hours.  Otto sees the stone being worn by the birthday boy’s motorcycle-riding uncle, and follows him a Big Wheel towards.  The other three decide to head for San Pan-Pisco to save Gru.  (Director Kyle Balda lived in the Bay Area, working for ILM and Pixar.  He later moved to France, where he worked on the Despicable movies and directed the first Minions.)

While Otto peddles over land and (under) water, Kevin, Stuart and Bob make their way to San Francisco by masquerading as a flight crew.  As I mentioned earlier, the scenes of the three on the jet achieve a Looney Tunes level of madcap silliness.  When they arrive at Knuckles’ house, they are no match for his henchmen.  Thankfully, they are saved by Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh), an acupuncturist who happens to be a master in kung fu.  Her training sequences with the three are the funniest kung fu training sequences since Kung Fu Panda.  Chow quickly learns that teaching the three kung fu is impossible, but seeing that they are indestructible, she teaches them that even the smallest of us is capable of great things, especially when we find our “inner beast” and roar!  Sure, it’s similar to the Wuxi Finger Hold Master Shifu teaches Po, but it’s still hilarious when the minions put it to use in the big finale.

I mentioned the Marx Brothers earlier without providing any evidence, but who else would the  exasperated Kevin, pseudo-ladies man Stuart and childlike Bob be modeled after but none other than Groucho, Chico and Harpo?

Angry that Gru doesn’t have the stone, Knuckles ties him to his new torture device, the “Disco Inferno”.  It’s a huge LP that plays “More, More, More” continuously.  (Is that really the most torturous disco song?)  When Knuckles’ henchmen quit on him, Knuckles decides to put Gru to work as an assistant.  Call it an “employ the one you’ve abducted and who also idolizes you” decision if you will.  Impressed with Gru’s loyalty, Knuckles decides to teach him the supervillian ropes.  

Gru finally reunites with his minions at a Chinese New Year’s Day parade.  Still peeved at Gru for stealing the Zodiac Stone, the V6 arrive and turn themselves into powerful monsters.  Will the minions remember their kung fu training and find their inner beast?  Will Knuckles show up to help rescue Gru from a painful death?  Of course!  Never underestimate the power of a chicken-minion.  Or a goat-minion.  Definitely not a bunny-minion.

Thoughts

While M:TROG is a very funny movie, it does have a few lessons to impart.  The first is about loyalty, specifically that it is a two-way street.  Gru finally understands this after the minions traveled across the country and put their lives at risk to save him.  He took their loyalty for granted and didn’t realize that nobody achieves success on their own.

Similarly, Knuckles kept a firm hand on the Vicious6, relegating them to the background while he hogged the spotlight.  Knuckles didn’t even trust them to help him retrieve the Zodiac Stone.  His controlling leadership style bred resentment, which led to his ouster from the team he founded.  It isn’t until Gru saves him from his cranky poolside crocodiles that he realizes that loyalty should always be rewarded.

The other lesson in the movie is to never underestimate your opponent.  They also kicked Knuckles to the curb because he’s an “old man”, insisting that it’s time for the younger generation to take over.  They also dismiss Gru because he’s just a kid without a resume.  In the end, they’re defeated by Knuckles and Gru’s minions.  As Master Chow tells us, “Even the smallest of us are capable of great things.”  Believe it.

The voice acting is solid all around, led by series regular Steve Carrel as Gru.  He’s been doing less comedic roles over the years, so I’m glad he still finds the time to do these films.  I liked him in Foxcatcher and The Big Short, but for me the pinnacle of his career will always be The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Anchorman.

I never knew until I looked at the credits that one guy handles the voices of all of the minions.  Pierre Coffin, you deserve an award for your service and dedication to all that is minion.  Keep up the good work!

Michelle Yeoh seems to be in everything that has a kung fu angle the last couple of years.  First Shang-Chi, then Everything Everywhere All At Once, and now this movie.  She’s a good sport for taking roles in these movies, each of which walks a fine line between being respectful and poking fun at kung fu.  Yeoh has a great sense of humor, though, which carries through every time.

As for the Vicious6, I was stunned when I found out that the actors behind the characters include Taraji P. Henson (Belle Bottom), Jean-Claude Van Damme (Jean Clawed), Dolph Lundgren (Svengeance), Danny Trejo (Stronghold) and Lucy Lawless (Nun-Chuck).  Aside from Henson’s Belle, the other characters have so few lines I have no idea why they needed to be voiced by these particular actors.  Several do little more than grunt or yell.  I guess when someone offers you a paying gig for a couple minutes work, you take it.  Same as Julie Andrews playing Gru’s mom.

The soundtrack is filled with Seventies hits, some performed by the original artist, some performed by new artists.  To my surprise, Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” wasn’t played at all. Given how popular that song was (the best selling song of 2014), I figured it would be included in every movie going forward. One noteworthy new song is “Turn Up the Sunshine”, a collaboration between Diana Ross and Tame Impala, which plays over the end credits.  The movie also features two versions of “Funkytown”, one by Lipps, Inc. and another by St. Vincent.  I hate to be picky, but for a movie based in 1976, “Funkytown” didn’t come out until 1979.  I know, I know, it’s an animated feature, not a documentary. Pank you. Bye-bye!

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