In Minions: The Rise of Gru – the fifth installment in the franchise – Gru (Steve Carell) is a boy raised by a neglectful mother and no father. He looks up to Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin), an aging supervillain and former member of the Vicious Six, a super-team of bad guys. After Wild Knuckles is marooned during a mission, Gru has an audition as his replacement. However, he gets laughed out of the room for being so young and overzealous, but not before he can steal the Zodiac Stone from their lair. Now, the five remaining members of the Vicious Six are after Gru, as is Wild Knuckles, who was thought to have died and is now after the Stone himself.
There are two ways you could have gone about doing a prequel movie about Despicable Me’s baddie-turned-softy, Gru. You could have either shown the reasons that led to Gru wanting to become a supervillain in the first place or you could have told the story of how he rose to power. The latter would, no doubt, be the tougher movie to make because you’d have to invest the audience in a protagonist under the pretext that he is, in fact, a villain-in-the-making.
Of course, the story of Gru, as we first learned back in the 2010 original blockbuster, began with his existential change from lifelong villain to compassionate father. And so anything that takes place before Despicable Me and after whatever trauma caused him to turn to a life of crime as a child must definitively imply that Gru is a “bad guy.”
While prequel movies like Cruella and Maleficent, and the Broadway musical Wicked, have showed the viewer our how our iconic baddies have come to be, they’ve always done so in ways meant to evoke sympathy, by depicting a good person being wronged, and thus turning to the dark side because of it. Minions: The Rise of Gru pays no mind to the Disney approach and instead, director Kyle Balda (The Lorax) and writers Brian Lynch and Matthew Fogel trust their instincts to make a film about a likable villain without needing to compromise who he was prior to the events of Despicable Me. Here, Gru isn’t a nice kid who was wronged; he’s just a twisted 11-year-old inexplicably obsessed with supervillains.
Rather than focusing on a good-guy-turned-bad premise (i.e, the exact opposite of the first film), Rise of Gru revolves around a young boy who aspires to be “bad,” yet discreetly shows signs of his heart through how he treats his minions and how earnestly he romanticizes the life of a villain – not necessarily evil itself. Rather than conflicting good with evil here, Gru simply possesses both qualities simultaneously. But this agreeability mostly has to do with how the sides of good and evil have been established in the world of Despicable Me over a decade ago.
Gru has always been treated as more of an Addams Family-type character, where his wickedness is cartoony with no real lives at stake. After all, Gru never really puts anyone in serious danger; he just does stuff like steal the Moon or the mini-Statue of Liberty from Las Vegas or the Jumbotron from a football stadium. The crimes in this universe are essentially minor inconveniences or annoyances under the mere pretense of global domination.
Rise of Gru is a one-off story of a young supervillain. And as our hero gets kidnapped and taken to San Francisco, the plot evolves into a rescue mission for the minions. Illumination, the studio behind all the Despicable Me movies, has always done a fantastic job depicting locations. And in recent years they’ve started to show real-life locations in their movies, such as a fairly accurate version of Hollywood in 2017’s Despicable Me 3, and San Francisco in this one, giving us landmarks such as Chinatown, the Painted Ladies, and the Golden Gate Bridge in the process.
But where a typical animated film would have these landmarks exaggerated and emphasized, Illumination treats them exactly how a live-action movie would, placing them candidly in the background or to establish the setting, nothing more.
Where a lot of recent animated movies have lost that Shrek-like edge to their humor, Despicable Me hasn’t missed a beat. In fact, Rise of Gru has some of the most laugh-out-loud moments of the franchise, such as the incredible sequence when the minions surreptitiously hijack a commercial aircraft as confused passengers struggle to understand what’s being instructed to them over the intercom.
Since Balda took over in the director’s chair, starting with the first Minions prequel in 2015, these movies just can’t seem to miss. And Fogel, new to the franchise, has brought something to the table that you won’t always get with animation: the belief in the expansiveness of the fictional world. There aren’t just fun nods to the original, but brand-new ideas and stories being tried for the first time.
Is the Despicable Me franchise now officially the best, if not most consistent, animated franchise ever? It’s at least the most versatile and limitless. While most animated IPs struggle to eke out two solid installments, let alone three or more, the folks at Illumination have now proven they’ve got the golden touch with this series. Even the worst on the list, Despicable Me 2, still has its charms. Minions: The Rise of Gru may not have the unexpected magic of the original, but you also wouldn’t be wrong if you wanted to make a case that it’s the best in the series.