Minions: The Rise of Gru benefits from low expectations. Arriving in movie theaters just two weeks after Pixar’s high-profile, frustrating new science fiction epic Lightyear, the latest extension of Illumination Entertainment’s most popular franchise doesn’t have to be groundbreaking, memorable, or even particularly hilarious to make a splash. In a dry summer that’s light on big blockbusters, The Rise of Gru — the fifth feature highlighting gibberish-spouting, indestructible, blobby henchmen the color of bananas (which happen to be their favorite fruit) just has to do its business, get out, and not dawdle in the mind for very long. In that respect, The Rise of Gru does the job. This is neither a uniquely marvelous film nor a teeth-gnashing pain. It’s OK in the moment, and it evaporates as soon as the end credits roll.
The Rise of Gru is odd for two reasons. First, though this is ostensibly a movie about the Minions, from odd-couple leaders Stuart and Kevin to childlike Bob and others, they’re closer to supporting players in what amounts to Despicable Me 0.5, as their supervillain overlord Gru (voiced, as always, by Steve Carell) takes center stage. Even more strangely, The Rise of Gru is bubbling over with plot details, even as it sets its focus primarily on the preteen version of Gru living in the mid-1970s. This young Gru is awash in Minions, who have yearned throughout history to serve a big, evil boss. (For now, Gru is their “mini boss,” a phrase that gives him plenty of grief.)
While the Minions desperately want to prove their worth to the selfish Gru, Gru wants to prove his worth to the fabled Vicious 6, a group of baddies led by his favorite villain, the old hippie Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin). Wild Knuckles, meanwhile, wants to get back at the remaining Vicious 6, now led by Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), who left him for dead after he stole a powerful Chinese totem that imbues its wearer with animalistic powers. Given that Minions: The Rise of Gru respectfully wraps up within 90 minutes, the amount of stuff that happens is a whirlwind at best, hopping from one hyper action set-piece to another, and frantic at worst.
If either director Kyle Balda or writer Matthew Fogel were able to let the movie breathe a little bit, the storytelling would feel more genuinely episodic. (Everything Everywhere All At Once star Michelle Yeoh is utterly wasted as a San Francisco acupuncturist moonlighting as a kung fu master who helps Stuart, Kevin, and Bob learn a few martial arts skills.) Instead, The Rise of Gru is Illumination’s usual weird, frenetic, toppling balance of chases, slapstick, pop-culture references, and quick attempts to create pathos and emotion amid visual cacophony.
The Rise of Gru manages to be both tolerable and full of missed opportunities, often in the same scene. Some of the adult-friendly references, like an opening credits sequence with Gru and the Minions in silhouette meant to evoke an old-school James Bond credits scene, are funny precisely because they’re so random. Yet casting choices meant to appeal to adults — like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Danny Trejo, and Lucy Lawless voicing the rest of the Vicious 6 — don’t go beyond the concept phase: Wouldn’t it be funny if JCVD played a guy named Jean Clawed, who inexplicably sports a lobster claw? Sure, unless the character only has a smattering of dialogue and no action in the film, aside from randomly wielding that claw. While Rise of Gru’s quick pace is admirable, it moves so quickly that none of the B-plots masquerading as A-plots can stick with viewers.
Amid all this, references and cameos aplenty litter the background, tying into the other entries in the Despicable Me franchise. Many are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, but they’re also present enough that they’ve probably been inserted to placate die-hard Minions fans. The creators aren’t foolish enough to demand viewers remember details from previous films in the series, but any parent who has rewatched these movies enough with their kids may spot an in-joke or cameo from the likes of Steve Coogan and Russell Brand for a dollar-store version of a reward.
Though the Minions — including a newbie named Otto whose chattiness bothers even his verbose brethren — are more than enough to keep this movie moving, the two brightest spots are Carell and Arkin, in what amounts to a particularly odd Little Miss Sunshine reunion. Arkin’s grouchiness is charming, and Carell (whose voice was presumably sweetened in post-production to make him sound more kid-like) is a fun foil as he personifies Gru’s boundless energy.
In the final moments of Minions: The Rise of Gru, the vast array of Minions sing a garbled version of The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which is perhaps a bit too much, creatively speaking, in a summer when the family-movie options have been both infrequent and unsatisfying. Minions: The Rise of Gru is a dutiful brand deposit, a spinoff that does indeed give us more of an idea of how a little kid with a Boris Badenov-style accent turned into a supervillain. Like the song implies, the film doesn’t give grown-ups what we want, in that The Rise of Gru isn’t notably entertaining or hilarious. It isn’t really what we need, either. But in a summer movie season with paltry pickings, it’ll do in terms of a providing brief balm from the outside heat, even if it’s just a very quick fix.
Minions: The Rise of Gru opens in theaters on July 1.