And They Were All Yellow
I have a confession to make: until now, I had never seen a Despicable Me movie. As a millennial, my animation touchstones were Toy Story and Shrek, and at 18 I was too old for the original Despicable Me when it came out. But sometimes the universe (along with an aggressive marketing campaign) gives you a sign. I couldn’t stop watching the original #gentleminons video on social media, and for the past month three yellow faces have stared at me from a poster at my subway stop. When Minions: The Rise of Gru was the most convenient option at the theater, the time had come to stop resisting and succumb to the meme fever.
Though I’m unversed in Despicable Me lore, I’ll do my best to summarize. Minions are yellow pill-shaped beings who live among us. It’s unclear whether they’re aliens or some kind of genetic mutation; there appear to be only about fifty of them in existence, all male, but this raises questions more difficult than this movie is prepared to answer. What we do know is that they’re a race that thrives in servitude: their sole purpose in life is to obey their beloved master Gru (Steve Carell), an 11-year-old aspiring supervillain.
When a spot opens up in the notorious supervillain squad the Vicious 6, Gru jumps at the chance to be interviewed. After the evil gang humiliates him, Gru pays them back by stealing the Zodiac Stone, a precious doohickey with untold power. With the Vicious 6 hellbent on getting their stone back, Gru’s only allies are his loyal minions (all voiced by Pierre Coffin) and the Vicious 6’s exiled leader, Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin).
Between the minions’ gibberish language and Carrell’s artificially high, slightly creepy voice, Minions: The Rise of Gru makes for a borderline-surreal experience. These oddball touches aren’t exactly inspired, but they set the movie apart from truly anonymous kids’ fare. The same can’t be said for the routine plot; thankfully the script recognizes it as a narrative frame on which to hang minion (and Gru) hijinks, and streamlines it accordingly. Certain sequences feel obligatory – the generic, overstimulated climax comes to mind – but most of the movie shows enough care and effort to clear that bar.
The three featured minions – the movie’s real stars – are given just enough personality to perform a serviceable three stooges routine. Though the gags don’t always land, one has to appreciate their density – some of the best jokes lurk in the background or go by so quickly that you could easily miss them. The tendency towards slapstick and sight gags is a refreshingly old-school, although the movie also indulges in a fair amount of easy ’70s pop-culture references; these latter jokes are without fail the movie’s weakest.
Unlike some of its contemporaries, Minions: The Rise of Gru is unconcerned with making any kind of sense. Its philosophy is that nothing besides the minions and Gru really matters; and weirdly, the choice pays off. The fact that the world-building is incoherent and self-contradictory is almost impressive, given that the creators have had four movies to figure this stuff out, but everything zips along so quickly and painlessly that it’s impossible to care. Minions: The Rise of Gru is nothing more than dumb fun, but it knows it, and mercifully spares us a sappy message.
Minions: The Rise of Gru can’t help but feel like a bit of a cash-grab – it is the sequel to a spinoff of a trilogy, after all – but it’s good-natured and funny enough that it never approaches the vulgar lows of, say, Ralph Breaks the Internet. Though ostensibly aimed at children, there’s something about the movie that has evidently attracted an older demographic: adults (including the audience I saw it with) are seeing it in droves. The memes deserve some of the credit, but there’s another reason: Minions: The Rise of Gru represents a very specific kind of cinematic escapism, one that entertains in the moment and dissipates the second it’s over. That’s fine, even preferable, for a movie like this; sometimes a breezy, 90-minute distraction just hits the spot.