The little yellow nubbins return for more squatty shenanigans
Minions: The Rise of Gru
With the voices of Steve Carell, Russell Brand, Taraji P. Henson, Michelle Yeoh & Alan Arkin
Directed by Kyle Balda
In theaters Friday, July 1
The fifth installment of the popular animated franchise featuring the small, scene-stealing yellow nubbins goes back to the ‘70s to uncover the riotously funny roots of its central character, the comedically earnest wannabe-villain, Gru. It’s both a sequel and prequel, connected to the preceding Despicable Me flicks and continuing the spotlight on the slapstick shenanigans of Gru’s mini army of squatty accomplices.
We meet Gru (voiced again by Steve Carell) as a roly-poly schoolboy, where he’s mocked by his classmates for his career aspirations to be the best bad guy of all time. At home, he retreats to his basement—his lair—where dozens of chattering little Minions merrily do his pint-size bidding.
A recent opening in the ranks of the Vicious Six, a cadre of supervillains, gives little Gru a possible entre to the bad-guy big leagues to earn his evil bona fides. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot—especially when Gru’s efforts to impress the Six with his stealthy thievery backfires and puts him in peril, spurring the Minions to come to his rescue.
Animator-turned-director Kyle Balda revives the lively, full-throttle comic-book style of the previous films (three Despicable Me flicks and their 2015 spinoff, Minions) with this rockin’ retro riff on the music, culture and movies of the mid-1970s as Gru and the Minions find themselves in the middle of a mighty—and mighty hilarious—misadventure.
Youngsters won’t get a lot of the references, but their parents—and grandparents—will dig the groovy sounds and sight gags, which place the story in San Francisco in 1976. There are nonstop in-jokes about the time and place, from rotary telephones to motorcycle daredevil Evil Knievel and kung-fu fighting. The city’s famous streetcars are used for comedic effect, and both Chinatown and the sea lions of Fisherman’s Wharf are incorporated into bits.
The funny flies fast and furious, equally applied to teeny tiny details and major story blocks—a mention of S&H Green Stamps, a cover of Mad magazine, an 8 track tape self-destructing (Mission: Impossible style) after playing its secret message, a sequence that pays homage to the tomb raiding of Indiana Jones. The funky, feisty bad-ass-ery of Bell Bottom (voiced by Taraji P. Henson), the motorcycle-mama leader of the Vicious Six, is a throwback to the “blaxploitation” movies of the era, like Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones and Coffy.
A massive music store—called Criminal Records—is a false front for the Vicious Six, where Gru is admitted by playing a record (appropriately enough, Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good”) backwards in a listening booth. (And yes, kids, those used to be a thing.) The clerk at the store gives Gnu a super-handy smart-goo grabber he’s invented, one that he’s nicknamed “Sticky Fingers.” A torture device is a giant turntable and endless replay of The Tramps’ “Disco Inferno.”
Gru dances to a self-stylized version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” and the familiar strains of “Funkytown,” The Carpenters’ “Goodbye to Love,” and Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” all provide pop-cultural grounding as well as sonic hooks to whatever’s happening onscreen. You’ve never heard The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” until you hear it, and see it, performed in a cemetery by a choir of Minions. One particularly zany sequence, on a wild-ride commercial airline flight, is scored to Strauss’ graceful “Blue Danube” waltz—making an in-joke nod to the bedazzling sights of outer-space travel in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
That record store clerk (voiced by Russell Brand) will show up again—actually, he’s shown up before—in the Despicable Me-verse. Eagle-eye fans of the franchise will spot plenty of other details, and some characters, that they’ll recognize from previous films.
Other voices are provided by Jean-Claude Van Damme, who plays Jean Clawed, a baddie with massive lobster claws for hands. Lucy Lawless is Nunchuck, a nasty nun with awesome nunchuck skills. Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh) is a mild-mannered massage therapist who schools the Minions in the ancient art of combat. Alan Arkin has a sizeable presence as Wild Knuckles, an ousted member of the Six who becomes a reluctant mentor to young Gru. There’s also Danny Trejo and Dolph Lundgren, and Gnu’s mom certainly doesn’t look like Julie Andrews, but the iconic Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music star once more returns to the role. Rapper RZA is an Easy Rider-style biker.
French animator Pierre Coffin (who directed three previous Despicable Me movies) again supplies all the hyper-expressive, yip-yappery gibberish of the Minions in a made-up mashup of childlike nonsense babble with occasional bursts of French, Spanish or English.
The younger set likely won’t catch the many flashback cues or be much interested in how much care, creativity, comedic precision and meticulous animation craftwork went into the filmmaking process; it all looks gorgeous, by the way, as its zooms through its brisk, 90-minute runtime. But I can guarantee little ones will tee-hee at the mild bathroom humor, get gob-smacked by the giddy, over-the-top onslaught of visual pop and pow, giggle at the crazy antics of the Minions and rev up to the gonzo-goofball pace of it all.
Another Minions movie? You might be tempted to say “Meh” and take a pass. But you’d miss the undeniable charms churned up by this zippy, laff-riot fun factory and these little banana-colored bumblers. In today’s darkening world of disease, war and division, the Minions again offer the opportunity to come together and bond in a bright yellow light of rampant imagination and unbridled silliness.
And well, yeah—the timeless amusements of butt cracks and fart noises.