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“Minions: The Rise of Gru” takes place in 1976. Had I seen it that year, I would have laughed my six-year-old self silly and demanded to see it again and again. Alas, I’m not six years old anymore. My sense of humor, on the other hand, still hovers around that age. As a result, this latest (and hopefully last) chapter in the Despicable Me Universe (DMU) felt tailor-made for the less mature aspects of my sensibilities. It was as if a checklist had been made to cater to me. Afros and ‘70’s era fashions? Check! Badass women in action? Check! Awful puns and wordplay? You got it! Disco music? I can dig it! Potentially blasphemous, violent nun jokes? Oh baby!
Readers of this site know of my soft spot for the Minions, those yellow, pill-shaped purveyors of trouble who are hopelessly devoted to Gru (Steve Carell). They make me laugh and I’m not even remotely remorseful about that. After their own prequel, “Minions,” and a pit stop for the lackluster present-day sibling rivalry plot of “Despicable Me 3,” Kevin Le Minion and his one and two-eyed pals have returned to the past to support the “eleven and three-quarters” years old version of Gru. They affectionately call him "mini-boss." When he’s not wondering how his employees “got so much denim” for their outfits, Gru is fantasizing about joining The Vicious 6, an Avengers-like conglomerate of villains created by Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin).
We see Wild Knuckles and his crew in action in an exotic, Indiana Jones-style locale. They are there to retrieve a necklace of gems called The Zodiac Stones. Once retrieved, it will give the Vicious 6 an unlimited amount of power on the night of the Chinese New Year. Considering all the groan-inducing needle drops that occur in this series, I expected The Zodiac Stones to be accompanied by that trash classic-slash-astrology lesson “Float On” by the Floaters. Unfortunately, the filmmakers are not that clever. Granted, that song came out in 1977, but “Minions: The Rise of Gru” uses Lipps Inc.’s 1980 banger, “Funkytown” not once, but twice.
After braving death to retrieve the gems, Wild Knuckles is betrayed by team member Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), who cruelly explains that honor among thieves is a myth before dropping him to his presumed death from their plane. With her ever-changing wardrobe and enormous Afro, (which is animated with an impressive amount of texture) Belle looks like Cleopatra Jones. The other four members have equally pun-based names. There’s Stronghold (Danny Trejo), a nunchaku-wielding nun named Nun-Chuck (Lucy Lawless), the Nordic strongman Svengeance (Dolph Lundgren), and a dude with an enormous lobster claw for a hand. His name is Jean-Clawed and he’s voiced by Steven Seagal. Just kidding! He’s voiced by Jean-Claude Van Damme. I told you this movie wasn’t that clever.
Now that the much-older Wild Knuckles is out of the picture, The Vicious 6—I mean Five—are looking for a much younger replacement. Gru applies for the position and receives a response housed in a self-destructing 8-track tape. He enters the record store that secretly houses Belle Bottom’s lair, meeting his future colleague Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) in the process. Nefario gives Gru a 45 of Linda Ronstadt’s cover of “You’re No Good,” the key to entering the secret hideout. Since he’s barely out of junior high, Gru is dismissed, but not before stealing the Zodiac Stones. Belle and her crew pursue him in order to get them back.
Believe it or not, there are two other plot-heavy stories in “Minions: The Rise of Gru.” One concerns the surviving Wild Knuckles’ San Francisco-based quest for revenge, and the other involves the Minions learning kung fu from Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh) in order to save Gru after he’s been kidnapped. Well, those two kind of go together; Gru’s been taken by Wild Knuckles in an attempt to retrieve what’s rightfully his. Unbeknownst to Mr. Knuckles, Otto, the newest, and most talkative of the Minions, has traded the jewelry for a pet rock. As punishment, Gru is subjected to a type of torture I would happily endure: He’s tied to a giant record player that will spin, for 48 hours straight, the greatest disco song ever recorded, the Andrea True Connection’s “More More More.”
“Don’t call my mother for ransom,” Gru begs, “she will probably pay you to keep me.” Gru’s mean ol’ Mom is once again played by Julie Andrews, who characteristically has no use for her son nor his henchmen. The Vicious 6 show up to extract a pound of flesh from her anyway. Seeing the star of “The Sound of Music” get her ass kicked by a nun is my kind of meta! That’s one way to solve a problem like Maria, I tell ya!
As with “Minions,” “Minions: The Rise of Gru” moves at breakneck speed. This time, however, it’s a tad less exhausting and actually works to the film’s advantage. The laughs are well-paced and the viewer isn’t given too much time to reflect on how ridiculous Matthew Fogel’s screenplay is. The animation is striking, from the gorgeously rendered Chinatown of the City by the Bay to the charming look of young Gru. He has the same big, expressive eyes that fill the emotional faces of his “little gurls.” Carell does a fine job of making his Gru voice younger and less pronounced. Henson and the rest of the cast sound like they’re having a blast, and their enthusiasm is infectious.
Even if you can’t stand the Minions (who are once again voiced in “Minionese” by Pierre Coffin), you might find this one tolerable. Especially if you’re old enough to get the 1976 jokes yet feel young enough to find bemusement in all the goofy slapstick. If nothing else, everything gets tied up neatly in a bow, bringing the DMU up-to-date, thereby making any further films unnecessary. That is, unless this one makes a ton of money.
Now playing in theaters.
Steve Carell as Gru (voice)
Pierre Coffin as Kevin / Stuart / Bob / Minions (voice)
Russell Brand as Dr. Nefario (voice)
Alan Arkin as Wild Knuckles (voice)
Taraji P. Henson as Belle Bottom (voice)
Jean-Claude Van Damme as Jean Clawed (voice)
Lucy Lawless as Nunchuck (voice)
Dolph Lundgren as Svengeance (voice)
Danny Trejo as Stronghold (voice)
Michelle Yeoh as Master Chow (voice)
Julie Andrews as Gru's Mom (voice)
RZA as (voice)