Directors – Kyle Balda, Brad Ableson, Jonathan del Val – 2022 – US – Cert. U – 87m
Three plots involving the Minions, their pre-teen, supervillain master Gru and a gang of supervillains called Vicious 6 compete with each other – out in cinemas on Friday, July 1st
This starts off bravely for a franchise entry with the introduction of a raft of six new supervillains who comprise the gang Vicious 6, their names thrown at the audience in rapid-fire vignettes too fast too absorb, suggesting the makers have half an eye on freeze-frameable, home viewing platforms and half an eye on merchandising. The fabulous, motorbiking Belle Bottom (voice: Taraji P. Henson) who appears to have wandered in from 1970s blaxploitation with enormous Afro hair and disco diva clothing is the main focus of an enthralling car chase in which she outwits the cops with incredible stunts.
Her co-villains are voiced mostly by a roster of action stars known for that rather than animation voice work: the crab-pincered Jean Clawed (voice: Jean-Claude Van Damme), the Scandinavian-sounding Svengeance (voice: Dolph Lundgren), Stronghold (voice: Danny Trejo) and nunchaku-wielding nun Nunchuk (Lucy Lawless).
(A quick aside: older readers will recall that back in the 1970s, nunchaku were a no-no for the BBFC who would prune their use or even excise them altogether, sometimes in the most innocuous of contexts. Today no-one bats an eyelid which shows just how far certain aspects of UK media culture have come in the interim.)
Following his thrilling, daring, Raiders Of The Lost Ark-style tomb theft of an amulet with the power to rule the world, Vicious 6’s leader Wild Knuckles (voice: Alan Arkin) is betrayed by Belle Bottom when she cuts the rope up which he’s climbing to the safety of the Vicious 6 aircraft above.
Thereafter, Wild Knuckles and the Vicious 6 are at odds with one another, the organisation advertising a position vacant for which Despicable Me regular Gru (voice: comic genius Steve Carell) applies. Aside from his interview with the gang, when he steals the amulet after Belle refuses to take him seriously, these villains are woefully underused with the exception of the double-crossed Knuckles who Gru manages to persuade to mentor him.
That’s a shame, because the opening promised a pastiche of 1970s gangland / spy / caper movies, with the Vicious 6 using record store Criminal Records as the front for their secret hideout and underground base. The film makers could have made something really fantastic with this, but once the script drops the ball after this eye-popping opening, all the potential of this early promise swiftly evaporates.
To see what might have been, take a look at the impressive, recently released and much better thought-through, animated, animal gangster movie spoof The Bad Guys, Pierre Perifel, 2022). That’s basically built around a group of villains (with a cop and a smart politician thrown in as two nemeses to the gang) rather than pushed into an existing franchise already stuffed with charismatic characters.
As its title suggests, the film is desperate to shift back to being a Steve Carell / Gru vehicle, showing us the young Gru as a schoolboy, laughed at in class for revealing his chosen career as Supervillain, already worshipped by his army of Minions (all of them voiced by the brilliant Pierre Coffin) who act as surrogate family when his mother (voice: Julie Andrews) seems barely interested, and yet to recruit gadgets expert Dr. Nefario (voice: Russell Brand) although he will have done so by the end of this film.
All of which is fair enough if considered in isolation, but perhaps you can see the problem here. The best thing about animation company Illumination’s Despicable Me franchise, ostensibly built around Eastern-European-accented, cod-Bond villain Gru, is its incidental army of Minions who serve him and who have understandably been taken to the heart of the moviegoing public (including this writer).
If Illumination’s creatives have acknowledged these supporting characters’ popularity in the past by giving them their own vehicle Minions (Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin, 2015), not to mention building an animated Illuminations logo around them, in this new movie, in what one can only presume to be a misguided attempt to shore up the Despicable Me franchise brand, they try to shift the audience’s attention back to Gru / Steve Carell without losing focus on the Minions / Pierre Coffin while at the same time introducing the Vicious 6 gang.
Consequently, three plots constantly compete for screen time and audience attention – an audience which is there, frankly, for the Minions rather than the other two plot strands and has never even heard of the Vicious 6, which perhaps explains why the script drops the latter characters so fast after their bravura opening. Would that it had had the courage of its convictions and done more with them, or introduced them in their own, stand alone film only to later combine them in later movies Marvel Cinematic Universe style.
It doesn’t really work as a movie (the 2015 Minions hung together better, as did The Bad Guys) but proves satisfying enough as a vehicle for the three main minions Kevin, Stuart and Bob to appear together or separately in a series of likeable scenarios: flying a commercial, passenger aircraft, crossing a desert, and an early Q from the James Bond movies type ensemble scene testing out gadgetry in Gru’s basement. Carell’s Gru gets a terrific scene involving a swimming pool full of crocodiles to boot.
As if all this wasn’t enough, it also throws in a Kung Fu Master (voice: legendary Hong Kong actress Michelle Yeoh, the perfect choice to voice the role) to coach the minions in martial arts. Which is great, although by this time we’ve already lost count of the rather too numerous, multiple plot elements.
Fans may be satisfied, but I couldn’t help feeling there was incredible potential laid at the beginning – and, for that matter, with Coffin’s Minion characters generally – with which so much more could have been done. Yes I enjoyed it, but still, overall, it’s a disappointment.
Minions: The Rise Of Gru is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, July 1st.