Ahead of the new sequel, here’s my rundown of the Despicable Me series so far …
Here’s my Empire review of Despicable Me.
NB: for comparison purposes, here’s Gru …
Here are my notes on Despicable Me 2
This lacks the character arc of Despicable Me, and I suspect there’s a peril in store if it’s a hit enough to get a third entry – as in Shrek, the first film was about a lovably horrid protagonoist who reforms, and while this is fast and clever enough to get past the fact that Gru (Steve Carrell) is a softer character now, it winds up with him getting married (he already has surrogate daughters), and settling into domesticity tends to mean films by and for young middle-aged folk who are actually more interested in the issues of suburban discontent than fun stuff like zapping folk or taking over the world. The thin plot is that Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League, repped by agent LucyWilde (Kristen Wiig), to track down another baddie, the Mexican wrestling-masked El Macho (Benjamin Bratt), who has stolen a mutagen serum and is hiding out in a mall.
The characters are appealing, and Lucy is a rare toon woman who’s fun rather than having to be a Mom figure (though she is eventually co-opted as Fun Mom by the kids), but what really works is the relentless parade of inventive jokes, often featuring Gru’s weird little yellow minions (the breakout characters from the first film) and a range of reference that keeps grown-ups on side while delighting kids (who probably don’t get the Carmen Miranda or Village People jokes) with simple silliness. The mutagen turns the minions into purple, hairy, fangy beasts, and there’s a shark-in-a-volcano scene. Early on, a minion gets its head stuck in a jamjar – most movies would be content with that gag, but this ensures that the same jarheaded minion runs throughout the film, even when mutated, though never prominently. Also, the end credits sequence is a rare, purely joyful use of 3D gimmickry in the old bouncing ball sense, with bubbles, a kazoo, trombone wheezers, etc., shoved out into the audience. With Steve Coogan, Russell Brand, Ken Jeong. Written by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul; directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud.
… and on Minions
Generations of kids have learned that though icing is their favourite part of cake it doesn’t make for a satisfying meal – and, indeed, often leads to nausea. The minions – little yellow indestructible beings in goggles and dungarees – were a running gag in the two likeable Despicable Me movies, but they no more needed their own vehicle than the Flying Monkeys of Oz or the faceless hordes of SPECTRE. This is essentially a montage narrated by Geoffrey Rush following the evolution of minions from prehistory through to 1968 and their first meeting with Gru (Steve Carrell) – with a detour that constitutes this movie’s thin plot as three individuated minions (Kevin, Stewart and Bob) attach themselves to blah arch-villainess Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock) and fall foul of her petty jealousy. The 1968 setting allows for a classic pop soundtrack – yes, Donovan’s ‘Mellow Yellow’ is the end credits track – and a lot of nice design frills, from the Shining carpeting to the purple haze wallpaper, but is weirdly arbitrary.
I suppose the period is as distant now as, say, the 1920s were when Thoroughly Modern Millie was released, but it still seems too spiky, fractious and revolutionary a moment to be so thoroughly co-opted into a pop culture mish-mash for 21st century kids who see Jimi Hendrix, Warhol, Nixon, the Monkees, the Kinks, Swinging London, the Beatles and Hair as all one not-very-meaningful remote nostalgia moment. It’s a footnote to the screen careers of Dracula (a previous minion-master dusted when they pull back the curtains to wish him a happy birthday) and the Creature From the Black Lagoon (here, aka Freddy Fishlips). It breezes along adequately but keeps skipping past good ideas, like the villain convention where the minions latch onto Scarlet, and dwelling on bad ones, like Scarlet’s thinly-conceived husband sidekick Herb (Jon Hamm). Of course, in an animated kids’ film, you don’t expect historical veracity – but the prices at the Tower of London in 1968 are given in new money and there’s a TV news report from inside the House of Commons. With the overqualified voices of Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan and Jennifer Saunders (as the Queen). It also features Napoleon, a T-Rex, the abominable snowman and several songs (‘Hair’, ‘Revolution’) translated into that falsetto mock-Italian minionese. Scripted by Brian Lynch. Directed by Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin.
… proof that Dracula completists (like me) have to see this film …
Minions The Rise of Gru (2022)
I’d say that the Despcable Me/Minions franchise was getting tired – except it was scarcely lively, except in the sense of being extremely kinetic, in the first place. Admittedly, the films overall have plenty of visual imagination, pop culture gags, textured 3d animation and sort-of workable emotional beats – the master villain is a big softie, aahhh – throughout, but they’re pretty much the definition of production line family entertainment pablum for the 21st century. It’s hard to work up much dislike for them – but there’s nothing really there. This is a sequel to a spinoff that’s also a prequel to the trilogy, and takes time out from its several storylines to indulge in gag-heavy training sessions that seem to take up most of the film along with non sequiturs like a trip through Death Valley, a plot focused on the magic powers of the Western zodiac that nevertheless climaxes on Chinese New Year in San Francisco, and a lot of characters who don’t get much to do.
It’s 1976, cuing pet rock, Rocky, Jaws, disco, fashion, vibe, psychedelia and needledrop gags possibly aimed at the grandparents of the tykes who’ll most respond to the yellow squeezy pill creatures who squeak in a fake lingo like some unholy crossbreeds of Pinky and Perky and Pepe le Pew while fouling up the simplest tasks. Twelve-year-old aspirant supervillain Gru (Steve Carrell) wants to fill a vacant spot on his favourite bad guy team, the Vicious Six, but is kicked out of the interview by big-hair big-bad Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson) for his age – so he steals the Zodiac amulet mcguffin already stolen from a boobytrapped temple by Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin), the former Vicious Sixer who’s been betrayed by his juniors. An idiot minion swaps the priceless magic artifact for a pet rock, which is dumber than funny, and various arcs include Gru and Wild Knuckles bonding while the main minions get kung fu lessons from acupuncturist Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh).
It’s the kind of film that ropes in Danny Trejo, Jean-Claude Van Damme (as a lobster-limbed French villain called Jean-Clawed), Dolph Lundgren (as Svengeance) and Lucy Lawless (a nun with martial arts weapons called Nun-Chuck) and then gives them only a few grunts and moans to dub in while much lesser lights get actual lines (some even get jokes). It flickers before the eyes, often clever, frequently nice to look at, too seldom funny. Nice soundtrack, of course – Linda Ronstadt’s ‘You’re No Good’, G.E.M.’s Japanese cover of ‘Bang Bang’, the Ramones’ ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’, Andrea True Connection’s ‘More, More, More’ (used as an implement of torture) and the Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ (dubbed into minionese and performed by voice man Pierre Coffin in another elaborately non-amusing skit).
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