‘Minions: The Rise of Gru’: The Tiny Troublemakers Return for More Mischief and Mayhem

The “Minions” franchise has a particular appeal based on the spirit of letting loose. These movies like to be absolutely absurd and silly. “Minions: The Rise of Gru” could only be released in the summer, when audiences and families don’t mind escaping the heat with a movie about little yellow characters in goggles and denim learning kung fu, turning into zodiac animals and screeching mumbo jumbo. It’s another prequel to what began as the “Despicable Me” franchise back in 2010, giving us the backstory of that film’s memorable villain, Gru. A mischievous value to this series is how it celebrates the anti-hero with goofy abandon. Asking kids to sympathize with the villain taps into their inner rebel that will eventually push back against the adults. 

The last “Minions” film found our favorite tiny helpers (voiced with exuberance by Pierre Coffin) in 1960s London stealing the queen’s crown. Now the action has moved to 1976 California. A young Gru (Steve Carell) is suffering through elementary school while dreaming of being a super villain. His great hope is to join the Vicious 6, a team of super baddies led by Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), and includes Jean Clawed (Jean-Claude Van Damme), Nun-Chuck (Lucy Lawless), Svengeance (Dolph Lundgren) and Stronghold (Danny Trejo). The 6 are looking for a new member after ousting their previous leader, veteran villain Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin). But Gru is laughed out of his audition when the fiends see he’s still a kid. To get revenge he steals their latest, prized steal, the Zodiac Stone. As the name suggests, the stone has cosmic powers tapping into the zodiac. When Gru is captured by an irate Wild Knuckles and is also being chased after by the Vicious 6, the Minions need to save their “mini boss” before it’s too late.

If you’ve seen the last three “Despicable Me” movies and 2015’s “Minions,” then you know what to expect in “Rise of Gru.” For the Minions aficionado, it does not disappoint. The manic energy and lovable, dim-witted humor of the small protagonists is all here, served in a splash of nutty pop art. A “Minions” movie is a PG cousin of the “Jackass” franchise, in the sense that it’s a celebration of brainless laughs. But we need that in movies. While Pixar makes the more intellectual, thoughtful titles, a “Minions” movie is like a fart joke when you’re in the first grade. It’s also not without some truly funny assaults on iconic images and songs. The opening apes those familiar James Bond credits, with silhouettes of the Minions dancing to a gibberish rendition of Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” Later, a Minions choir will do an equally cheerful butchering of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Martial arts movies get plenty of nods when the Minions meet Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh) in San Francisco’s Chinatown. She’s an acupuncturist who also does kung fu and takes the little henchmen under her wing. Of course, the Minions would rather dance to disco than break wooden boards with their bouncy heads.

“Rise of Gru” may feature the familiar Minions humor, but it also makes sure not to repeat the last movie. The adventure is completely different this time and connects to the “Despicable Me” movies much better. There’s also a new Minion, Otto, who has braces and is prone to fall in love with pet rocks. He goes on a massive tricycle journey to get to San Francisco and join his comrades, with wonderfully goofy winks at ‘70s road flicks like “Easy Rider.” The truth is what makes these movies work is that the Minions are just fun to watch in their absurdity, as when they fly a plane disguised as pilots and really do the word “turbulence” some justice. Always yelling and laughing in their particular lingo that carries hints of Italian, Spanish, English and just plain nonsense, they’re never a bore. 

The final battle of the movie is a rather demented kaleidoscope of Minions turning into goats, fire-breathing dragons flying around and explosions. The new villains are unchained cartoon creativity. Belle Bottom is a wink at Blaxploitation films while Nun-Chuck rides around a ship designed like a giant church organ. Having ’80 and ‘90s action legends like Van Damme, Lundgren, Trejo and Lucy Lawless of “Xena: Warrior Princess” voice the Vicious 6 is a real treat for older audience members with longer memories than the intended fan base of the movie. The soundtrack is also a fun time capsule. Phoebe Bridgers does The Carpenters’ “Goodbye to Love” and St. Vincent covers “Funkytown.” Even more fitting are tracks like The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop.”

Is there any depth to “Minions: Rise of Gru” as a movie? On a broader level, there’s the subversive spirit of making wannabe super villains the heroes. Even if Gru and the Minions defeat the Vicious 6, they still remain super villains seeking to carry out nefarious plots. Well, the Minions are just the help, but that makes them accessories. Maybe we don’t want the kids wanting to steal Zodiac Stones, but there’s something lively about a franchise saying it’s ok to break the rules sometimes. Wild Knuckles may be an elder, but he just wanted to live without rules. In a time of conservative orders reimposing themselves on society, that’s not the shallowest message for young viewers. Maybe they’ll catch on in hindsight when they’re older, but for now they will be plenty amused with the stink bombs and yellow butts.

Minions: The Rise of Gru” releases July 1 in theaters nationwide.