Children and stoners rejoice: the Minions are back. Minions: The Rise Of Gru uses the story of Gru’s budding super-villainy as a conveyance for more bumbling, uniquely addictive hijinks from the Three Stooges/Marx Brothers/Looney Tunes-inspired gibberish spouters, and the ride is considerably more pleasant than you might expect. Nobody is going to mistake these yellow, overalls-clad Styrofoam peanuts for leading men of substance, but director Kyle Balda (Despicable Me 3) redeems the best part of the franchise he helped create by wisely giving Gru—and any slightly more serious storytelling—a back seat to the most fun you’ll see this side of Wile E. Coyote’s Acme catalog.
Back in the 1970s, Gru (Steve Carell) was still in short pants when he hatched ambitions to be a super villain. After discovering that evil team the Vicious 6 is looking for a new member following the demise of founder (and Gru’s idol) Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin), Gru applies for the position. But the Vicious 6 members refuse to take the kid seriously, even though he successfully steals the amulet they intended to use to conquer the world. In Gru’s ensuing escape, he passes off the amulet for safekeeping to Otto (Pierre Coffin), a well-meaning but perhaps unsurprisingly unreliable Minion who, predictably, loses it.
While Gru figures out another way to appease 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 fly into action to locate and recapture the prized item. During their journey, they encounter a friendly biker (RZA) and a reluctant martial arts instructor (Michelle Yeoh) who prepare them, sometimes inadvertently, first to rescue Gru and then to fight back against the Vicious 6.
It’s easy to see what makes the Minions so appealing to kids—they’re about the same size, they’re endlessly cheerful, they speak in unintelligible nonsense, and they show their butts, a lot, It’s also understandable why they can’t quite anchor a film all by themselves, and it’s not just because they can recruit Carell, or Sandra Bullock in Minions, or heavy hitters like Arkin, Henson, Yeoh and RZA to pinch-hit as their human counterparts. Their sweet stupidity possesses a kind of anachronistic, purely physical charm that Hollywood mostly left behind when it started making talkies. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean anyone actually cares about those human characters, possibly outside of Gru, whose fanboy adulation for Wild Knuckles is navigated so well here that it never jeopardizes his fiendish (future) ambitions.
Balda and co-screenwriters Matthew Fogel and Brian Lynch are tasked with threading a very thin needle between slapstick set pieces, with just enough plot to both tug gently at the audience’s heartstrings and for these delightful little dumb-dumbs to get themselves into trouble. They manage to pull it off, although introducing Otto—a newer Minion, even dumber than Kevin, Stuart, or Bob—doesn’t quite prove to be the Elmo-to-Grover-like triumph one imagines they had hoped for. Then again, Otto trades the amulet for a pet rock he falls in love with, so perhaps it’s unfair not to grade these films’ creative choices on at least a slight curve.
Other than RZA as the especially happy-go-lucky biker who helps Otto on his quest for the amulet, the film’s celebrity voice cast members deliver their dialogue with uninspiring proficiency, although I’d pay good money to watch live video of Arkin cantankerously reading lines in the booth and wondering what he’d signed up for. Coffin once again steals the show as the voice of all of the Minions, sputtering and giggling as they squash, stretch, and fart (of course) in response to the stimulus around them.
The 1970s setting gives the filmmakers an 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 child. But with five films, shorts, a television special, and a theme park ride, it’s clear that the Minions aren’t going anywhere any time soon, no matter whose coattails they’re supposed to be riding. Ultimately, The Rise Of Gru exerts a negligible impact on the Minions’ canonical journey. If nothing else, the film serves as a reminder of the characters’ cartoonish charms, both literally and thematically, and their transcendent appeal.