“Bello, mini-bosses!” Your favorite curmudgeon of a villain is back. And so are his Minions in their latest story, Minions: The Rise of Gru.
Gru, voiced lovingly by Steve Carrel, wasn’t always a curmudgeon. Before his ascension to villainy, he was an awkward, devious, and wayward 12-year-old. He had his Minions, Kevin, Stuart, Bob, Otto, and the rest of the gang as loveable miscreants, but he wanted more like any kid his age. He has a mom, Marlena (Julie Andrews), who was more interested in her life than nurturing her son, allowing him to become a latch-key kid.
Enter The Vicious 6, a group of genuinely nefarious individuals bent on getting their hands on a priceless and dangerous stone with magical powers that the story doesn’t fully see fit enough to explain. Of course, that’s not the story’s primary motivation in Matthew Fogel’s screenplay, based on a story by Brian Lynch and Fogel.
Gru is a fanboy of The Vicious 6 in the truest sense, and he wants nothing more than role models from which to fuel his desire to be the ultimate villain. Director Kyle Balda (Despicable Me 3, Minions) stages a wild car chase in which we meet Belle Bottom, voiced by Taraji P. Henson. If you can take a wild guess by that character’s name, the film is set in the mid-70s. Minions: The Rise of Gru throws every aspect of the 1970s, in the form of homages, at the audience. Doing so reinforces the audacity of The Vicious 6 and the level of freedom Gru, as a character, seeks. He needs to find his mojo.
Or to maybe find a role model, something Gru sorely lacks.
Alan Arkin’s Wild Knuckles turns out to be precisely that. Gru is far more cunning than your average 12-year-old, and that cunning gets him into trouble. Despite not wanting anything to do with his Minions, Kevin, Stuart, Bob, and newcomer Otto (voiced by Pierre Coffin) all feel a responsibility to come to Gru’s aid while he is on the run. In between the subversive laughs and hijinks, and oh those homages, Carrel and Arkin genuinely form a bond, elevating Minions: The Rise of Gru to the level of the first Despicable Me and above the prior Minions films as well as the second and third Despicable Me entries. Minions: The Rise of Gru is Gru’s story, framed through the Minions.
Akin to the 1970s, the story becomes a road trip as the Minions search for their leader. The Vicious 6 is hot on their tails. I’m pursing my lips in a glib smile over The Vicious 6 character names: Jean Clawed (Jean-Claude Van Damme), Nunchuck (Lucy Lawless), Svengeance (Dolph Lundgren), and, Stronghold (Danny Trejo). Though their roles are minor, they are archetypical references to the culture of the time.
In a critical sequence, The Vicious 6 come together in a Transformers-like way (yes, I’m aware that the toys didn’t come out until 1979) to defeat Gru. Kevin, Stuart, and Bob stop along their way to get some much-needed Kung-Fu training from none other than Master Chow, voiced by the amazing Michelle Yeoh, while Otto keeps pace by hitching a ride, Easy Rider-style from a biker, voiced by RZA.
Minions: The Rise of Gru manages to do what Austin Powers in Goldmember could not: it happily and jokingly evokes primary pop culture references from the 1970s right down to a James Bond/Derek Flint-esque adventure. It has wall-to-wall laughs; it brings us back to what made Despicable Me so much fun with a very touching story and characters we care about. The characters all have a specific function. The story doesn’t layer them in for the sake of having a character or an unnecessary cameo. However, in a cameo-lite performance, Russell Brand as Young Dr. Nefario fills the bill perfectly. Yes, it is rough-and-tumble. So were the 1970s as the country sought freedom, free love, and a lot of good music. I dare you not to tear up at the Minion’s rendition of The Rolling Stones.
Nefariousness is back!
Minions: The Rise of Gru
Directed by Kyle Balda
Co-Directors Brad Ableson, Jonathan del Val
Screenplay by Matthew Fogel
Story by Brian Lynch and Matthew Fogel
Featuring Steve Carrel, Taraji P. Henson, Michelle Yeoh, RZA, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lucy Lawless, Dolph Lundgren, Danny Trejo, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Alan Arkin, Pierre Coffin
PG, 88 minutes, Illumination/Universal Pictures