This summer, my sister has decided that my nieces are at the age where they do not need the constant stimulus that is the summer camp environment. My description is based on firsthand experience working as a lifeguard, and seeing busloads of young ones being dropped off at the pool. The squeals still sometimes haunt my dreams. To set the record straight, my sister is not leaving them completely on their own. Shortly after my niece’s school year ended, my sister asked if I could get them out of the house on Fridays so that they are not sitting around all day doing nothing. To be fair, if I were them at that age with the kind of access to technology they have, I would be tempted to do the same. As somebody now in an ancillary guardian role to them, as much as an uncle can be, I happily agreed to entertain them. They have other outlets for the rest of the days. I did so with the full realization that there would be afternoons like this one where I would see Minions: The Rise of Gru.
From the start of Minions: The Rise of Gru, I was unsure of the title. The first character we meet is not the title one (voice by Steve Carell), but a different, already established supervillain, Belle Bottoms (voiced by Taraji P. Henson). It is the 1970s, by the way, for some reason. Anyway, she eludes those pursuing her and makes it to the secret lair of the most famous set of bad guys around, known as Vicious 6 (because Marvel already had the Sinister Six, I am guessing). She has brought news of the location of a mysterious bauble known as the Zodiac Stone, which can change people into mythical creatures on the day of the Chinese New Year. Traveling to the location revealed by a map, their leader Wild Knuckles (voiced by Alan Arkin) retrieves the item, but in the process is betrayed by the fellow members of the cabal. We then switch to a young Gru sitting in a classroom, his bored teacher going around the room asking what her students want to be when they get older. Of course, Gru says he wants to be a super villain. I guess the adoring Minions (voiced by Pierre Coffin) waiting for him are a part of that plan. Upon returning home, Gru notices that he has received a letter from the Vicious 6 informing him that they would like to interview him to fill the position left by Wild Knuckles. Gru is worried that the Minions will not look intimidating enough and tries to get them to stay behind, but a small cadre of die-hards (I suppose) follow him anyway. Either way, it is Belle Bottoms who is the one to derisively send the aspiring villain away. Before he can leave their chamber, the next hopeful distracts the other five, giving Gru the opportunity to make off with the Zodiac Stone, taking it because it seems important. He is spotted just before he can get away, but is still able to evade their chase with the help of his inept Minions. I say inept not just because it is true, but between the time of his theft and presenting it to the rest of the group, one of their number, Otto, ends up trading it with another kid for his pet rock. These movements are also observed by the still alive Wild Knuckles, who wants the power of the stone for himself. As such, he ends up kidnapping Gru. A few of the more dedicated Minions, despite being told they had been fired thanks to Otto’s gaff, follow Wild Knuckles. Otto, having finally remembered the kid with whom he traded, separately tries to retrieve the stone. The kid gave it to his uncle (voiced by RZA), who promptly jumps on a motorcycle to head . . . somewhere. Otto follows on a big-wheel, and eventually catches up with and befriends the guy with stone, obtaining it from him and getting a ride to San Francisco to boot, which is where Wild Knuckles takes Gru. The other Minions get there by essentially hijacking an airplane, but find that Wild Knuckles own henchmen cannot be overcome with their diminutive frames. Never fear, though, because they end up finding a kung fu master in the city, Master Chow (voiced by Michelle Yeoh), who agrees to train them in martial arts. During this pointless and supposedly funny sequence, Gru befriends Wild Knuckles, aided by the fact that Wild Knuckles is Gru’s favorite super villain. Unfortunately, it does not take Wild Knuckles’ former associates to arrive, tearing apart his house in search of the stone. Gru and Wild Knuckles find the wreckage after pulling off their own heist, which disheartens Wild Knuckles and causes the teacher to send away the apprentice. Conveniently, this brings Gru to Otto, who has the stone, and even more conveniently it brings the Vicious, I do not know, 5 to the scene. They take the stone and use it to transform into monsters because even more conveniently this takes place on the Chinese New Year. What saves the day is Wild Knuckles intervention, and the Minions activating their kung fu powers. In the end, Gru has gained a friend and mentor, and a newfound respect for his yellow idiots.
I have a few problems with Minions: The Rise of Gru beyond the sprinkled snark of the last paragraph. Most of ire has to do with the concept. As I understand it, and I have seen none of the other films, but the others in the franchise have the main character learning to become a good guy. Fine. That is supposedly not the object here, even though the actual acts of villainy, by and large, amount to mild pranks. At the same time, since this is a movie aimed at a younger audience, should we be saying, yeah, kids, aspire to be a bad guy. Hopefully, there will be a parent on hand to say that is not a good idea. You can call it a remote possibility, but let us just suppose for a moment that a child becomes focused on what it means to be a villain, and it leads her/him to something genuinely evil. I feel this is not too much of a stretch in regards to this movie because early on we get a montage of Gru spraying people with a “cheese ray” to get to the front of an ice cream line, stealing said dessert, eating it in front of people at a gym to nettle them, and cheating at games at an arcade. In the grand scheme of things, these are seemingly benign acts. Then again, there is the part where Gru and Wild Knuckles steal the Mona Lisa. Is that okay because the famous painting is being held in the vault of a place called “The Bank of Evil?” To this reviewer, these are contradictory messages that could have unintended consequences.
The other bone I have to pick with Minions: The Rise of Gru is with one of the members of the Vicious Whatever, Nun-Chuck (voiced by Lucy Lawless). Again, I know the film is not meant to be taken seriously, but it is still part of a dumb stereotype that is becoming increasingly damaging for Catholics. Recent events will tell you that our Faith is being wrongly portrayed enough in the media. We do not need the perpetuation of further images that are ultimately unfair. In previous reviews, I have mentioned one of the committee members for my doctoral dissertation, Bren Ortega Murphy, whose documentary A Question of Habit will tell you all you need to know about the unfair nature of portrayals like Nun-Chucks. To briefly summarize, the silliness with which they are typically shown is not good. They have done, and continue to do, important work beyond their most important role: praying for your soul. And I mean you, specifically. They are praying for you. There is also the notion that she is part of a team of villains. We know that there have been some nuns guilty of bad things. However, the overwhelming majority are more like what you would expect from modern female religious. I encourage you to check out the website for the Marian Sisters of the Diocese of Lincoln. Their mother superior is one of the coolest people I know. I could do without Nun-Chucks, though they would, no doubt, laugh at the character.
I know there will be many families this Fourth of July weekend seeing Minions: The Rise of Gru. I hope that if you have one that you will at least consider some of what I have said in this review. There is little of value in the film. It is simply pretty colors and nonsense. My nieces both said they enjoyed it, though I doubt it was not at the same level as the rest of the audience that gave a round of applause before and after the proceedings. As for me, I was just happy to spend some time with them, and hope that a bit of the Spirit FM playing in the car later got to them.