There is a great deal of mileage to be had with characters as intrinsically adorable the Minions. And MINIONS: THE RISE OF GRU takes it as far as it can go with a script that wobbles as uncertainly as Otto, the most loyal and least competent of little yellow creatures, does on the steep streets of San Francisco where the crew finds itself in this installment.
We are still in origin story mode here in the year 1976, with Gru (Steve Carell, once again doing a bang-up job at transmuting his reedy adult tenor into that of a child) realizing his lifelong dream of joining the Vicious Six. Of course, he’s only 11 and 3/4, which works against him on many levels, not the least of which is being taken seriously by the gang, whose sudden job opening has resulted from their own internecine squabbles. Taking their new leader, Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), at her word about coming back when he’s done something to impress them, Gru swipes their newly acquired magical stone, which will allow the Vicious Six to defeat their archenemies, the Anti-Villain League. Unfortunately, his scheme to return it to Belle and company to prove that evil is not just for adults when Otto, entrusted with the gem during their escape from a job interview gone very wrong, trades it for a pet rock and a world of trouble for them all.
The minions, aptly described at one point as resembling tater tots, continue to be counterintuitively distinct individual personalities of astonishing emotional richness. Perhaps it’s the patois they speak combining nonsense words with those of several recognizable languages that allow us to project our own interpretation of an emotive chatter that conveys all that is necessary with tone and (admittedly limited) body language. Perhaps it is the epic resolve they evince no matter what the circumstance. Perhaps it is the sense of unrestrained glee and of depthless despair they allow us to experience with them. Perhaps it’s just the sheer absurdity of seeing puffy yellow cylinders feel so deeply and so profoundly. Whatever it is, it works in the moment, keeping the movie afloat even as the narrative, going in so many directions at once, begins to wear both thin and irksome.
In that story, Gru meets, annoys, and eventually bonds with his hero, founder of the Vicious Six, Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin). Otto sets out to retrieve the gem, while lead minions, Kevin, Stuart, and Bob, set out to rescue Gru from his hero and then from the Vicious Five. There are the flashes of wit that infused DESPICABLE ME, the initial entry in the franchise, from White Knuckles’ torture device dubbed the Disco Inferno for reasons obvious and not, to the record store used as the cover operation for the Vicious Six that proudly proclaims it sells music popular, funk, classical, and polka.
The puckish sentiment of the original fails to translate, however, with klunky dialogue doused in saccharine, and a subplot that involves making kung-fu fighters out of minions that is a sad parody of that particular trope. Yes, that’s Michelle Yeoh as the zaftig kung-fu master turned acupuncturist. No, it doesn’t help. Neither does Julie Andrews returning for an extended cameo as Gru’s mother, currently besotted by a cabbage–scented guru, nor even Russell Brand as the fledgling mad scientist, Dr. Nefario.
MINIONS: THE RISE OF GRU starts with a whiz-bang tribute to Indiana Jones stealing the golden idol in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, pursued not by a speeding boulder, but rather by an army of mechanized anti-minions. The cleverness declines as the running time unspools. Thank a beneficent universe, though, the minions themselves abide.