Huge news: The Minions are back, baby!
The little gibberish-speaking lads are notoriously divisive amongst adults, who perceive them either as cute little distractions or a symbol of society’s downfall. But when it comes to kids, they can’t get enough. A staggering fact: Despicable Me is the highest-grossing animated franchise in history, earning more than $3.5 billion over four films.
With each film raking in nearly $900 million on average, it should be no surprise that Despicable Me is No. 5. Minions: The Rise of Gru is a prequel to the first Despicable Me movie, exploring the origins of Gru’s villainy. As an aspiring supervillain, Gru (Steve Carell) is obsessed with the Vicious 6, a group of villains terrorizing the world, and wants nothing more than to be a part of the gang.
Now, this may shock you, but hijinks ensue and Gru finds himself taking the all-powerful Zodiac stone from the Vicious 6, which, during a madcap chase, he entrusts to Otto, the newest member of the Minion clan.
Otto is incredibly eager to please as well as deeply loyal; he’d happily go an extra thousand miles to please Gru. Deep down, and like so many of us, he just wants to belong—making him a surprisingly relatable character. (After all, he’s still a Minion).
Otto has a tuft of hair, a mouth full of braces, and, most excitingly, he’s fat. In fact—and it truly blows my mind to say this—Otto is the best fat character in a major animated film since the iconic Shrek.
“So what if he’s fat?” you might ask. “What does that have to do with anything?” “He’s a Minion! Who cares?!”
But it’s a rare thing to see fat characters, or body diversity of any kind, in mainstream animation. Protagonists are usually varying degrees of remarkably thin, and when larger characters do appear, they’re kept to the sidelines or mocked for their size. When fatness is involved, it threatens to overwhelm a character’s entire personality.
Consider Family Guy, which makes a joke out of weight at every opportunity, using fat people as quick, throwaway gags. Peter Griffin and his son Chris are both slobby dopes; there’s an entire scene where Stewie follows around fat people with a tuba, soundtracking their every step. Fat characters with better defined personalities, like South Park’s Eric Cartman, still are the subject of frequent fat jokes.
Even Pixar, which has done a good job including fat characters over the years, went this route with Wall-E. While the film is largely considered to be a masterpiece, it visualizes a dystopian future where everyone has become so fat they can’t walk on their own two legs.
These are, for the most part, comedies—animated ones at that, where the suspension of disbelief is required by design. But as someone who’s been overweight all their life, these types of portrayals leave a nasty, lasting impression. Heck, I’m still not over the moment in Disney’s Chicken Little when chubby Runt falls down a hill, letting out a grotesque burp each time he hits the ground, while his other, thinner friends are silent.
At least one psychological study proves I’m not just being sensitive. In a 2005 report on the impact of body weight representations in animation, researchers found that “the overriding tendency was for cartoons to provide positive messages about being thin and negative messages about being overweight.”
Fat characters are also often the bad guys—think of Disney villains like Pete, the Queen of Hearts, and Ursula. These portrayals can have damaging effects on viewers of all kinds and all ages—especially younger ones, like all the kids eating up Despicable Me movies.
Otto, however, is the exception to the rule. In just one movie, he manages to become the absolute star of the entire Despicable Me franchise. As the hero of Rise of Gru, he receives an entire character arc of his own, complete with tough losses and major victories. He’s sweet, funny and replete with an unyielding desire to help. Otto is not just likable—he’s lovable.
Despite being a great deal wider than the other Minions, Otto’s size is never brought up, not even for the kinds of cheap throwaway jokes that so much other animation relies on. Otto gets to participate in the movie's physical comedy alongside everyone else: When Gru tells the Minions that they’re going to play “the quiet game”, none take it more seriously than Otto, who holds his breath until he turns red, and topples over. He’s so devoted to Gru, he’s willing to pass out in order to please him.
Minions are single-celled organisms who exist to serve, but the film also gives Otto a chance to be a leader. Otto joins beloved trio Bob, Kevin, and Stuart to retrieve a lost artifact, but when the trio head off in one direction, Otto follows his instincts, heading the opposite way. He turns out to be right, and manically pedals on a toy bike across the country to save the day, never once getting out of breath.
Interestingly, the Despicable Me franchise already had a fat character: Gru, its anti-hero. What elevates Rise of Gru is that it offers an opportunity for Gru to process his anxieties about his weight. His (evil) heroes, the Vicious 6, mock him for being “tubby,” crushing Gru’s spirits. It’s after this moment that he becomes incredibly cruel to Otto, treating him harsher than everyone else, channeling his own insecurities about his size into his devoted Minion. Gru bullies Otto about his weight, just as Gru had been bullied about his own.
But Otto has none of the insecurities that Gru has, feeling completely comfortable with his own portly stature. Though Gru is furious with him for a mistake he made, Otto never gives up on Gru. Otto more than makes up for his errors, showing Gru that his tubbiness doesn’t have to stand in the way of his supervillain aspirations, and Otto’s hard work ensures that he and Gru wind up with the last laugh.
As the legendary Winnie the Pooh—one of animation’s greatest characters, fat or otherwise—said, “I am short, fat, and proud of that.” The Rise of Gru takes this quote to heart, crafting a short, fat character who is both the star and more than his number on the scale. Admittedly, Minions: The Rise of Gru is the last place on Earth I expected to find such subtle, powerful activism, but the film has an important message: Being fat is not a barrier to success, and it does not define you. If the rapturous applause at the end of my screening was any indication, this is now Otto’s world, and we’re just living in it.