‘Rise Of Gru’ Review: ‘Despicable Me’ Prequel Overshadows ‘Minions’ Sequel

Minions: The Rise of Gru (2022)

Illumination/rated PG/87 minutes

Directed by Kyle Balda

Written by Brian Lynch and Matthew Fogel

Produced by Chris Meledandri, Janet Healy and Chris Renaud Starring Steve Carell, Taraji P. Henson, Michelle Yeoh, RZA, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lucy Lawless, Dolph Lundgren, Danny Trejo, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews and Alan Arkin

Edited by Claire Dodgson with Music by Heitor Pereira

Opening theatrically courtesy of Universal on July 1

Illumination and Universal’s Minions: The Rise of Gru is the last film that was intended for release in 2020 that was left unreleased due to Covid, opening just over a month after Top Gun: Maverick and Bob’s Burgers: The Movie. No matter how it would have played in summer 2020 under non-Covid circumstances, it arrives in theaters during a moment whereby Disney’s biggest animated rivals (DreamWorks and Illumination, now both under the Comcast umbrella) have been mostly surpassing the Mouse House’s theatrical toons in terms of the global box office. Following the $407 million finish for Sing 2 (on par with The Secret Life of Pets 2’s $430 million gross in 2019) and the $239 million gross for The Bad Guys and the $253 million gross for Encanto and the (likely) $225-$250 million finish for Pixar, a business-as-usual blockbuster result for Minions 2 could signal a genuine changing of the guard.

Anyway, that’s more of a commercial consideration (Minions earned $1.1 billion in 2015 while Despicable Me 3 grossed $1 billion in 2017 and Despicable Me 2 earned $968 million in 2013) than an artistic one, but honestly, this latest franchise installment almost defies artistic consideration. That’s not entirely a criticism, as the film is yet another example of how Illumination grows and evolves as an animation powerhouse without coming off as showy or “for the sake of razzle-dazzle.” Perhaps because their films tend to be more grounded and less fantastical (even if the characters themselves are inherently fantastic), they don’t quite get the “Holy moly!” animation huzzahs of their (often more expensive) competitors. That said, Minions: The Rise of Gru is a gorgeously animated comic adventure, one that played quite well on that huge TCL IMAX screen. But as a story and character play, it rarely rises above “Oh, it’s a Minions flick.”

The first Minions prequel wasn’t exactly a contemporary classic, but it had a gonzo anarchic sensibility (including a handful of cartoonishly violent deaths) and an over-the-top animated turn by Sandra Bullock as the film’s prime villain. There’s no one in The Rise of Gru to compete with Scarlett Overkill, who was essentially co-lead (and an added value element) in the London-set comedy. Alas, this sequel’s “Vicious Six” ensemble does not stand out beyond cast-to-type vocal actors (Taraji P. Henson, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lucy Lawless, Dolph Lundgren, Danny Trejo and Alan Arkin) playing broad stereotypes. Henson has fun as the leader, while Arkin gets a minor arc as an accidental mentor for a young Gru. Speaking of which, as the title implies, this is both a sequel to Minions and a sequel to Despicable Me, which is probably a big reason this sequel/prequel feels more formulaic compared to the first spin-off.

Since young Gru (still voiced by Steve Carell) is a co-lead, to the point where the Minions fade into the background, the film can’t help but tell a more conventional arc that’s expected for a kid-targeted animated film starring a child protagonist. Moreover, Gru is a less interesting lead character compared to Overkill (and Henson’s underdeveloped Belle Bottom) both because we’ve seen him do his thing three previous times and because young, uncertain and not-yet-formed Gru isn’t as enjoyable as adult Gru. The film flirts with being a retroactive prequel to the sequel where we spend the entire film watching Gru become “the Gru we know and love.” Granted, the “pay-off movies” do exist but that doesn’t make the film’s world-building and table-setting any less engrossing. This is not a franchise that needs every plot beat filled in or every character relationship retroactively explained. We don’t need Despicable Me 0.5.

Better is the mid-film section when Minions take center stage, including an extended training riff with Michelle Yeoh playing an acupuncturist who is also a kung-fu master. As the film does take place in the 1970s, there’s a case to be made that Minions: The Rise of Gru is essentially Illumination riffing on both martial arts movies and (mostly via Belle Bottom) Blaxploitation flicks. However, again the focus on Gru’s backstory and Despicable Me mythology means a lot less time spent with the Vicious 6, most of whom are defined by their name and a single attribute (Nunchuck is a nun who wields nun-chucks). Minions: The Rise of Gru is like several Covid-delayed films (F9, No Time to Die, Ghostbusters: Afterlife and, yes, Top Gun: Maverick) that feel developed and produced back when Hollywood thought Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was going to be a critical and commercial smash.

Alas, The Rise of Gru only exists to create arbitrary and needless connections between the first Minions and the first Despicable Me. Minions ended with the title yellow goons being essentially adopted by a young Gru, and nothing in The Rise of Gru justifies this fill-in-the-nonexistent-blanks storytelling. Not to pick on Star Wars, but this prequel/sequel aligns with Disney+’s recently concluded Obi-Wan Kenobi show in how it answers questions nobody asked and connects dots that needed little connection. The difference is that A) it’s just 80 minutes long as opposed to 3.75 hours and B) it’s less a matter of appeasing respective fandoms and more about “Minions grossed $1.1 billion, so I guess we need to make another one!” At least, to my knowledge, nothing gets retconned. It’s visually creative, occasionally funny and kid-targeted for sure. But even my kids argued that it needed less Gru and more Minions.

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