Mini Boss

Minions: The Rise of Gru is the real prequel to Despicable Me. Minions was cute, but it was a stretch to give the title characters their own movie. They needed a good villain to follow and Scarlet Overkill wasn’t it. The Rise of Gru is proof that a young Gru should’ve been around from the start. Child Gru was previously seen in flashbacks, but this time Steve Carell voices him throughout the entire movie. Which also means the return of Julie Andrews as Gru’s mother, Russell Brand as a young Dr. Nefario, and other surprise appearances that bring the franchise full circle. Gru is an aspiring supervillain who gradually learns to accept help from the Minions. Kevin, Stuart, and Bob are still the main trio of Minions, but they’re also joined by chunky braces wearing Minion Otto.

Pierre Coffin continues to voice the Minions, but he doesn’t direct this time around. The Rise of Gru now takes place in the 1970’s with even more jokes that will go over kids heads. It’s basically an homage of cheesy Kung Fu flicks, spy films, and 70’s music. Gru aspires to join the supervillain team the Vicious 6. Taraji P. Henson voices the afro-sporting leader Belle Bottoms, Jean-Claude Van Damme voices the lobster claw wearing Jean Clawed, Lucy Lawless voices the evil nun Nunchuck, Dolph Lundgren voices the rollerblading Svengeance, and Danny Trejo voices the metal handed Stronghold. It’s an impressive cast, but they’re all pretty one note villains. The missing sixth member is Alan Arkin as Wild Knuckles, the original leader who gets betrayed and ends up kidnapping Gru.

It’s up to the Minions to save their mini boss and recover an ancient Chinese artifact called the Zodiac Stone. Otto goes after the stone on a tricycle and the trio get into more hilarious antics. Including flying a plane and learning Kung Fu from a master who could only be voiced by Michelle Yeoh. The climax is one of the more creative in the franchise since the Vicious 6 are transformed into vicious animals and the Minions are transformed into adorable animals. The Rise of Gru was supposed to come out back in 2020, but it was postponed due to the Pandemic. In that time I got tired of seeing the same trailers and LEGO sets over and over again. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the prequel/sequel, but Minions: The Rise of Gru is the best installment since Despicable Me 2.

5. Minions The Rise of Gru

Gru and the Minions at the theater

Preceded by: Minions

Oh Brother

Despicable Me 3 kept the franchise going despite Minion dominance. Minions was a billion dollar success, but Illumination tried to expand with The Secret Life of Pets and Sing in the same year. Despicable Me 3 came afterwards with all the same excessive marketing. I know because I must’ve seen the trailer a hundred times. Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig return as Gru and Lucy who are now happily married agents working for the Anti-Villain League. The latest villain is Balthazar Bratt, a former child star from the cancelled TV show Evil Bratt with the unlikely voice of South Park co-creator Trey Parker. Bratt is a throwback supervillain with a high-top, mullet, and shoulder pads since 80’s nostalgia is still a thing. The movie is filled with 80’s songs like “Bad.” Bratt uses expanding bubble gum and other 80’s toys to steal a priceless diamond.

When Gru and Lucy fail to bring Bratt in, they’re both fired from the AVL by the new director voiced by Jenny Slate. Steve Coogan briefly voices the former director, but he also voices a butler who tells Gru about his long lost twin brother Dru. Gru’s mother made 2 seperate non-speaking cameos before Julie Andrews finally had a reason to return. Although it’s convenient storytelling, The Simpsons did the exact same thing. Carrell also voices Dru who lives in the fictional country Freedonia, is a wealthy pig farmer, and has long luxurious hair. Russell Brand doesn’t return, so Dr. Nefario is stuck frozen in carbonite. This time it’s the Minions who want to quit due to Gru’s lack of villainy. After Minions, I was surprised by how much they downplayed their role in the movie. Mel is the lead Minion who takes most of the Minions to a singing competition and prison where they realize they miss Gru. Two Minions stay with Gru and his family who all have major subplots.

Lucy is mostly concerned with being a better stepmom to the girls. Miranda Cosgrove returns to voice Margo after finishing college. Margo learns to accept Lucy after she stops an accidental marriage proposal. Dana Gaier returns as Edith who mostly tags along with Agnes. Agnes is recast since Elsie Fisher was busy making Eighth Grade. Her replacement is a little distracting since she spends a lot of time searching for a unicorn. Meanwhile, Gru learns that Dru wants to be a supervillain and he uses it as an excuse to steal back Bratt’s diamond. They use fancy stealth suits to infiltrate his lair where they discover his evil plan to make Hollywood float into space. The climax sort of rehashes the original, but this time it’s Lucy who saves the girls. Gru and Dru learn to work together and the Minions return to help defeat Bratt. Despicable Me 3 isn’t very original, but it is a serviceable return.

4. Despicable Me 3

Gru bonds with his brother Dru

Preceded by: Despicable Me 2 & Followed by: Despicable Me 4

Banana!

Minions put the scene stealing characters from Despicable Me front in center. Right from the start I knew it was an obvious marketing gimmick. Illumination literally waited 2 years to release the spin-off just to exploit its merchandising opportunities. I guess it worked since Minions merchandise was everywhere and the movie ended up becoming the third animated film to gross over a billion dollars. My brother and I saw Minions in theaters surrounded by the target audience. Although the computer animation is a vast improvement, Minions is the first movie that feels like a corrupt product. Despite speaking Minionese, which is basically gibberish the entire movie, Minions manages to keep the story going. The first half is like a nature documentary narrated by Geoffrey Rush. Minions begin life as yellow single-celled organisms who are basically immortal and live only to serve the most despicable villain at the time.

They accidentally kill a T-Rex, a caveman, a Pharaoh, Count Dracula, and Napoleon before becoming discouraged and living in an arctic cave. It’s a good thing they did become discouraged, or else they would’ve ended up following Hitler. Minions follows three Minions who were previously introduced. Kevin is the tall leader, Stuart is the one-eyed guitar player, and Bob is the cute one with a teddy bear. They travel all the way to New York where they gain their trademark overalls. Although Minions isn’t above childish humor, there are a ton of innuendos that will go over kids heads. Minions is set in the 1960’s with jokes only Baby Boomers will understand. Since Minions voice actor Pierre Coffin isn’t a big name, the rest of the cast has star power. Michael Keaton and Allison Janney are part of the unassuming suburban Nelson family who pick up the Minions and turn out to be criminals. The Minions have their usual short films Cro Minion and Competition, but Binky Nelson Unpacified is dedicated to their baby.

Together they head to Villain-Con in Orlando where we see many creative supervillains (and one familiar face). Without Gru, Scarlet Overkill stands in as his less endearing replacement. Not that Sandra Bullock doesn’t give it her all as the world’s first supervillainess. She’s joined by her laidback inventor husband Herb appropriately voiced by John Hamm. Scarlet recruits the Minions, then betrays them when she gets what she wants. We head to England where the Minions steal the Royal crown for Scarlet. Jennifer Saunders voices the Queen who’s forced to abdicate the throne to King Bob! When Scarlet seizes the throne, it’s up to the Minions to stop her. Through a series of crazy shenanigans, Kevin grows to enormous height and battles a rocket powered Scarlet. The rest of the Minions join them and the three primary Minions are honored by the Queen. Although it feels like a natural conclusion, young Gru suddenly appears voiced by Steve Carell in a split second cameo. Minions gave the audience what they wanted.

3. Minions

The Minions explore

Followed by: Minions: The Rise of Gru

Because I’m Happy!

Despicable Me 2 is the only Illumination film nominated for Best Animated Feature. Let alone receive an additional Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. “Happy” by Pharrell Williams was an upbeat and inescapable song back in 2013. Despicable Me 2 is a minor improvement over the original, but I do think the song helped its popularity. The computer animation is more polished, there’s still plenty of heart, and the childish humor is just as creative. My brother went to see Despicable Me 2, but I was still a little apprehensive. Hop wasn’t the best follow up to the original and the less said about The Lorax the better. Steve Carell, Russell Brand, Miranda Cosgrove, and the rest of the minor cast return to voice their respective characters. Carell and Cosgrove were both done with their shows at the time.

Gru is now an ex-villain who’s perfectly happy being a father to his three girls Margo, Edith, and Agnes. The Minions are also happy making jelly in their former laboratory, but Dr. Nefario decides to part ways with a fart gun salute. The threat this time is a mysterious villain who steals a dangerous mutagen called PX-41 that turns living things into aggressive purple monsters. The Minions were once comedic interludes, but they got so popular that they were given an entire sublot along with 3 short films called PuppyPanic in the Mailroom, and Training Wheels. Minions are captured, taken to a relaxing resort, and ingested with PX-41. Not to mention the other Minions who join Gru along the way. As a former villain, Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to track down the villain behind everything. Steve Coogan voices the hilariously named Silas Ramsbottom who sends his top agent to collect Gru.

Kristen Wiig had a small role in the first movie, but now she’s upgraded to main character as Agent Lucy Wilde. Since Gru is constantly pestered by his neighbor to find a woman, I knew Lucy had to be his love interest. Their relationship is cute, quirky, and a little weird when Lucy drugs Gru’s vapid date voiced by Kristen Schaal. Together they work undercover in the mall to locate their villain. Ken Jeong voices a wig shop owner and potential suspect, but the real culprit is over-the-top Mexican stereotype El Macho. Benjamin Bratt voices the unassuming restaurant owner with an evil chicken, but the role was originally meant for Al Pacino. Pacino actually recorded all of his lines before being replaced. Margo has her own romantic subplot when she develops her first crush on El Macho’s son. Edith is mostly busy playing ninja, but Agnes really wants a mom. Gru rescues Lucy in an even crazier climax that ends with a wedding and more Minionese pop song. Despicable Me 2 should be enough to make fans happy.

2. Despicable Me 2

Gru bakes with Lucy Wilde

Preceded by: Despicable Me & Followed by: Despicable Me 3

We are Going to Steal the Moon!

Despicable Me is a good movie about a bad guy who becomes good in a bad way. Illumination is a computer animation company that sort of snuck up on everyone in the 2010’s. Unlike Pixar, DreamWorks, or Blue Sky Animation, I didn’t give their first film a chance. The Universal owned Illumination was founded by former Fox and Blue Sky producer Chris Meledandri with the intention of being kid friendly and cost effective. I was 15 at the time, and Despicable Me looked a little too childish for me.

I distinctly remember mistaking it for the very similar Megamind the first time I saw a trailer. Both 2010 movies are about a likeable bad guy and his minion(s) committing larger than life crimes, but ultimately learning to be a better person. We saw Megamind in theaters for its superhero angle and DreamWorks name recognition, but my brother and I didn’t have enough interest in Despicable Me to see it in theaters. Little did we know how much of a phenomenon Despicable Me and the Minions would end up being…

1. Despicable Me

Gru protects the girls

Despicable Me seems so simple compared to the rest of the franchise. The computer animation is good, but not what I’d call top tier. Despicable Me is cartoony with very stylized character designs. The main villain turned hero is the aptly named Felonious Gru. Though he can be referred to as a supervillain, Despicable Me is more Bond than Superman. So Gru’s look is more Blofeld than Lex Luthor. Gru has an oddly shaped body, a long pointy nose, bald head, and an all-black outfit complete with fancy scarf. Steve Carell took a break from The Office to create another iconic character. Carell disappears into the role with an undefinable European accent.

Like most diabolical villains, Gru has a super obvious evil lair, a rocket-powered car, and a FREEZE RAY! He’s even given his own catchy villain song by Pharrell Williams. Gru is joined by a monster “dog” named Kyle, his elderly associate Dr. Nefario voiced by a very unrecognizable Russell Brand, and the Minions. Honestly, it’s not hard to see why the Minions became so iconic. They’re like cute little pieces of yellow corn wearing blue overalls and goggles. Every Minion has a name and is distinguished by their height, size, or number of eyes. Like many studio mascots, the Minions are all voiced by co-director Pierre Coffin speaking a made up Minionese language that sounds like gibberish, but includes words like “Banana!”

The Minions are the biggest comic relief, but they rarely affect the plot. Their antics mostly include a trip to the store and a running gag where a Minion drinks an anti-gravity serum and continues to float throughout the movie. Of course the Minions were given the spotlight in 3 short films called Home Makeover, Orientation Day, and Banana. Some of the humor comes from civilians acting like Gru’s villainy is normal, but most of the jokes are reliant on potty humor and other childish gags. Like Dr. Nefario mistaking a dart gun for a fart gun.

Yet somehow Despicable Me ended up a lot more heartfelt than it sounds. Gru’s primary goal is proving himself as a great villain by literally stealing the moon. Something he hopes will impress his disapproving mother with the unlikely voice of Julie Andrews. Most of the cast consists of fellow comedians. Will Arnett voices Mr. Perkins, the President of the Bank of Evil who reluctantly loans Gru money to fund his plot to steal the moon. The problem is Mr. Perkins happens to be the father of Gru’s sworn rival Vector. A geeky rich brat voiced by Jason Segel who upstages Gru by stealing the Pyramids in the opening scene. Vector has his own much fancier evil lair complete with sharks.

When Vector steals a shrink ray, Gru hatches a plan to steal it by adopting a trio of unassuming orphans who can infiltrate his house by selling cookies. Kristen Wiig voices the cruel head of the orphanage Miss Hattie who flirts with Gru and lets him adopt the girls. Though they’re between the ages of 5 & 10, Margo, Edith, and Agnes are notable for having old lady names. Margo is the level-headed older one who wears glasses. Miranda Cosgrove voiced Margo between episodes of iCarly. Edith is the tomboy middle child who mostly wears pink. The lesser known Dana Gaier only got the part by accompanying her sister to an audition. Agnes is the adorable youngest sister who loves fluffy unicorns. Elsie Fisher made her film debut at only 6 years old.

Gru sees the girls as a means to an end, but the movie’s heart comes from him eventually caring for them. His softer side comes out at a carnival and after reading a bedtime story. The Minions also start to care for the girls, but Dr. Nefario keeps Gru focused on the mission. They build a rocket and steal the moon, but Gru realizes being a dad is more important and heads to their dance recital instead. The climax is crazy and defies the laws of physics when Gru rescues the girls from Vector and they become a family. Though it sounded like a generic kids movie on the surface, Despicable Me ended up being a surprise hit.

2. Despicable Me

The Minions

Followed by: Despicable Me 2

If We are Kind and Polite, the World Will be Right

Paddington 2 is sincerely one of the greatest sequels ever made. The first Paddington was a smash with critics, but Paddington 2 did the impossible by maintaining the highest 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. A record that was unfortunately ended by one critic who frankly forgot his manners. Paddington 2 is a rare sequel that surpasses the original and is practically impossible to dislike. I feel about it the same as what I felt about Stuart Little 2 when I was a kid. The humor is better, the adventure is more exciting, and I was moved to tears by the end. Paddington Bear (now named Paddington Brown) is just so kind and polite with everyone he meets. He makes his London home a better place to live. Ben Whishaw is just as charming the second time around, but this time Paddington must prove his innocence when framed for a crime he didn’t commit.

All Paddington wants is to get a gift for his dear Aunt Lucy. Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon both reprise their roles in a Peruvian flashback where Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo rescue the young bear cub. The gift is an immersive pop-up book of London that costs a fortune. Paddington gets into more antics with a job cutting hair and cleaning windows. Jim Broadbent returns as the kindly owner of the book Mr. Gruber and Peter Capaldi returns as Mr. Curry to doubt Paddington when the book turns up stolen. Even in prison Paddington manages to reach the humanity in everyone he meets. Prison uniforms are accidentally turned pink and prisoners cheer up when Paddington cooks up a big batch of delicious marmalade. Added emphasis on marmalade makes me want it even more.

Brendan Gleeson is a big standout as the hotheaded cook Knuckles who warms up to the kind bear. Meanwhile, the Brown family works to clear Paddington’s name. Hugh Bonneville now faces a mid-life crisis as Mr. Brown and Sally Hawkins finds herself underwater twice in the same year as Mrs. Brown. Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin haven’t done much since the first movie, but Judy and Jonathan are now into journalism and trains respectively. Julie Walters is about the same as Mrs. Bird. Together they discover the culprit to be former actor Phoenix Buchanan. Like Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant excels at playing an entertaining villain. Buchanan is notable for his costumes that he uses to find treasure from the pop-up book. Paddington 2 includes a  prison break and train chase, but it never loses sight of the heart that made us love Paddington in the first place.

Paddington 2

Paddington catches the train

Preceded by: Paddington & Followed by: Paddington in Peru

As Sweet as Marmalade

Paddington is simply delightful. It’s a rare family film that received near universal acclaim from the young and old. I’m not British myself, but I have heard of Paddington Bear before. Paddington was created by author Michael Bond. He began life in the book A Bear Called Paddington before transitioning to animated television programs. Live-action movies with a CGI animated animal can be hit or miss, but Paddington works about as well as Stuart Little did when I was a kid. The CGI is about as realistic as you can make a talking bear and the story is very faithful to the source material. Paddington resides in Darkest Peru where his Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo learned English customs from an explorer.

Paddington is perfectly well mannered and has a deep love of marmalade. I most certainly developed a love of marmalade after watching the film. Like the books, Paddington arrives in London and is adopted by the Brown family who name him after Paddington Station. The movie is quite humorous as Paddington gets into all sorts of antics including flooding the Brown bathroom and accidentally stopping a thief. A lot of the heart came from Paddington’s voice actor Ben Whishaw. Colin Firth was the original choice, but it’s best they went younger. Hugh Bonneville is a perfectly high-strung Mr. Brown and Sally Hawkins is warm & inviting as a more free-spirited Mrs. Brown. Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin are the often embarrassed Judy and mischievous Jonathan respectively.

A lot of the cast consists of Harry Potter alumni. There’s Dumbledore Michael Gambon as Uncle Pastuzo, Umbridge Imelda Staunton as Aunt Lucy, Mrs. Weasley Julie Walters as hip housekeeper Mrs. Bird, and Slughorn Jim Broadbent as kindly antique shop owner Mr. Gruber. Plus Doctor Who Peter Capaldi as the Brown’s crotchety neighbor Mr. Curry. The main conflict comes from Nicole Kidman as devious taxidermist Millicent. She’s more than a simple disposable villain since she has an unexpected connection to Paddington’s past. Though he begins the movie searching for a home, only at the end does Paddington realize he’s been home the whole time. Paddington is as sweet as marmalade.

Paddington

Paddington at the train station

Followed by: Paddington 2

You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog!

Elvis has re-entered the building. The undisputed King of Rock and Roll will forever be Elvis Presley. His impact on music and pop culture is so legendary that a proper big screen musical biopic was inevitable. Sure there were TV movies and shows, but never what you’d call an event movie. After The Great Gatsby in 2013, Elvis was immediately announced as director Baz Luhrmann’s next project. Though it was nearly a decade before he could fully realize it. I’m an Elvis fan like everybody else, so I was excited to see it on the big screen. Elvis is just as flashy and stylish like only Luhrmann can accomplish. Unlike most biopics, Elvis feels like a comic book movie that emphasises every important piece of Presley’s life.

Modeling himself after Captain Marvel Jr, inspiration from black Gospel artists on Memphis Beale Street, his controversial hip movements, liberating effect on girls, military service, meeting Priscilla Presley, his acting career, Vegas, love of guns, and eventual weight gain are all covered. Although most of the attention is given to Elvis Presley’s relationship with shifty manager Colonel Tom Parker. A lot of the movie is told from his perspective as an unreliable narrator. Casting Tom Hanks as the mysterious Dutch snowman was a perfect full circle moment since Forrest Gump is the one who inspired Elvis. You can tell Hanks was included for star power, but the movie truly belongs to Austin Butler. I’ve been familiar with Butler for years since I grew up seeing him in Nickelodeon shows like Ned’s Declassified, iCarly, and Zoey 101. I always love when an unsuspecting actor gives a career-making performance.

Along with a possible Best Picture nomination, I predict Butler gets nominated for Best Actor. Butler fully transforms into Elvis in a way that doesn’t feel like another impersonation. From his look to his voice and every energetic performance. Fellow musical artists like Hank Snow, B.B. King, and Little Richard are acknowledged, but more attention is still given to just about every hit Elvis song. My only real complaint would be the unneeded inclusion of modern remixes. Elvis is a fun show, but there is tragedy that needed to be acknowledged. Like Elvis’ relationship with his late mother and managing father. Olivia DeJonge is just as uncanny as Priscilla Presley who, along with their daughter Lisa Marie, gave the movie their seal of approval. Elvis is also affected by the Memphis assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Elvis ends up with other managers, but his continued affiliation with Parker led to his prescription drug abuse and inevitable heart attack. Elvis is an emotional tribute that took care of business.

Elvis

Elvis Presley performs for the crowd

P.S. I have officially finished my 96 day Oscar movie marathon from 1927 to 2022

What it Means to Be a Man

The Power of the Dog is an old fashioned western with a new fashioned twist. After her previous nomination with The Piano, Jane Campion became the second consecutive woman to win Best Director at the Academy Awards. Although I’m certain that’s a big reason for its acclaim, The Power of the Dog is an engaging character study. It was nominated for 12 Oscars, but only won 1 for Best Director. The last movie to do that was The Graduate back in 1967. The last movie to win 1 while losing 11 was Becket back in 1964. Though The Power of the Dog seemed like a shoo-in to win Best Picture, CODA was the true underdog.

Ironically it became a competition between Netflix and Apple TV+. The scenic western production value earned it several technical nominations for Best Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Production Design, and Sound. Every single award was lost to Dune. The original 1967 book by Thomas Savage works surprisingly well in the 2020’s. It’s actually another gay cowboy movie nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. Although it’s a bit more subtle with metaphors and symbolism. Campion’s style can be seen through character relationships, male nudity, and there’s even a piano. The entire cast deserved their respective nominations.

It’s an unexpectedly good ensemble that includes Doctor Strange, Nightcrawler, Mary Jane Watson, and her husband. Thomasin McKenzie is the only New Zealand native in the cast. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a surly rancher with a convincing southern drawl. Phil belittles his brother George and his eventual wife Rose. Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst are a convincing married couple since they are one in real life. Although they were nominated in the same year, neither of them won. Dunst plays Rose as a miserable alcoholic who takes abuse from her brother in-law. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays her unmanly son Peter who gets roped up in Phil’s world. Though it seems like an attraction, Peter is more devious than he lets on. The Power of the Dog is slow, but powerful.

The Power of the Dog

Peter rides with Phil

I’ll See You Down the Road

Nomadland is an honest look at the life of van-dwelling nomads. A movie about isolation was the perfect Best Picture winner for 2020. It wasn’t affected by the Pandemic aside from streaming exclusively on Hulu. Frances McDormand and Peter Spears brought the non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century to the attention of independent Chinese director Chloé Zhao. The nature of nomads fit her modern western motiff with several beautiful mid-western landscapes. Zhao received 4 Oscar nominations as the movie’s director, producer, writer, and editor.

Winning Best Director made Zhao the second woman after Kathryn Bigelow to win the award and the first woman of color. I’m certain it was the main reason for the Best Picture win. Despite the insulting way that the Oscar ceremony was presented. Nomadland is practically a pseudo-documentary that happens to star Frances McDormand, but heavily features real life nomads telling their stories. Including Linda May as a friend, Swankie as a terminally ill nomad, and Bob Wells delivering a powerful philosophy about seeing loved ones down the road.

McDormand won her third Oscar for Best Actress as the recently widowed Fern who lost her job during the Great Recession. She slowly adapts to life in a van and finds seasonal jobs at places like Amazon. Many of the places she visits are scenic, but there’s a gritty realism when Fern does things like poop in a bucket. David Strathairn is one of the few genuine actors who plays a nomad that falls for Fern and shows her a way back to a normal life. Although Fern learns to move on from her husband, she still prefers being a nomad. I’m not really interested in nomad culture, but it’s interesting to learn about simple ways to survive. Nomadland is a movie anyone should see down the road at least once.

Nomadland

Fern down the road