Kids and stoners rejoice: The Minions are back. Minions: The Rise of Gru uses the story of Gru’s budding supervillain as a vehicle for more clumsy, uniquely addictive hijinks from the Three Stooges/Marx Brothers/Looney Tunes-inspired gibberish spouters, and the ride is far more enjoyable than you might expect. Nobody’s going to mistake these yellow, jumpsuit-clad Styrofoam peanuts for leading men of substance, but director Kyle Balda (I – Despicable Me 3) redeems the best part of the franchise he helped create by wisely putting Gru – and some more serious storytelling – on the back burner for the most fun you’ll see on this page of Wile E. Coyote’s Acme catalogue .
In the 1970s, Gru (Steve Carell) wore shorts when he had ambitions to become a supervillain. After discovering that the evil team of the Vicious 6 are looking for a new member following the death of founder (and Gru’s idol) Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin), Gru applies for the position. But the Vicious 6 members refuse to take the boy seriously, even though he successfully steals the amulet they set out to take over the world with. In Gru’s subsequent escape, he hands the amulet over to Otto (Pierre Coffin), a well-meaning but perhaps unsurprisingly unreliable Minion, for safekeeping, who predictably loses it.
While Gru finds another way to placate the Vicious 6 — in the process crossing paths with a vengeful, very not dead Wild Knuckles, who kidnaps Gru to reclaim the amulet for himself — the Minions rush into action to save the Vicious 6 to find and reclaim valuable items. On their journey, they meet a friendly biker (RZA) and a reluctant martial arts instructor (Michelle Yeoh) who prepare them to, sometimes unintentionally, first rescue Gru and then fight back against the Vicious 6.
It’s easy to see what makes the Minions so appealing to kids – they’re about the same height, they’re endlessly happy, they talk incomprehensible nonsense, and they show their butts, a lot of. It’s also understandable why they can’t anchor a film all on their own, and it’s not just because they can recruit Carell or Sandra Bullock minions, or heavyweights like Arkin, Henson, Yeoh, and RZA to pinch like their human counterparts. There’s a kind of anachronistic, purely physical charm to her sweet silliness that Hollywood largely left behind when it first started making talkies. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really mean anyone takes care about these human characters, possibly outside of Gru, whose fanboy admiration for Wild Knuckles is so well navigated here that it never jeopardizes his diabolical (future) ambitions.
Balda and co-writers Matthew Fogel and Brian Lynch are tasked with threading a very thin needle between slapstick set pieces, with just enough storyline to both gently tug at viewers’ hearts and for those adorable little fools, themselves get yourself in trouble. They pull through, though the introduction of Otto – a newer minion, even dumber than Kevin, Stuart, or Bob – isn’t quite the Elmo-zu-Grover-esque triumph one might have hoped for. Then again, Otto trades the amulet for a pet stone that he falls in love with, so it’s perhaps unfair not to put at least a slight curve on these films’ creative choices.
Aside from RZA as the particularly cheery biker who helps Otto on his quest for the amulet, the film’s celebrity voice actors deliver their dialogue with uninspiring skill, though I’d pay good money to watch live video of Arkin, eh he quarrelsomely reads snakes in the booth, wondering what he signed up for. Coffin once again steals the show as the voice of all the minions, stuttering and giggling as they squeeze, stretch and (of course) fart in response to the stimuli around them.
The 1970s setting offers the filmmakers the opportunity to recruit modern artists to record covers of classics like Funkytown (St. Vincent) and Hollywood Swinging (Brockhampton), bridging the gap between past and present, adult and to bridge children. But with five movies, shorts, a TV special and a theme park ride in the works, it’s clear the Minions aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, no matter whose coattails they’re told to ride. Eventually, The Rise of Gru has a negligible impact on the minions’ canonical journey. Last but not least, the film serves as a reminder of the characters’ cartoonish charm, both literally and thematically, and their transcendent appeal.