What do we talk about, when we talk about Minions: The Rise of Gru, and what are we saying? The fifth entry in the popular franchise from the Illumination studio is a prequel which returns the narrative to a period before the redemptive arc of master-villain Gru (Steve Carell) that featured in the Despicable Me trilogy. Despite the title, this isn’t really a sequel to the previous film, Minions, in which Gru’s little yellow henchmen first went solo. But there’s a fairly tight formula of slapstick invention and nostalgic needle-drops to be upheld, and Minions: The Rise of Gru does a pretty decent job of keeping the little rascals at the top of the animated heap.
Kyle Balda’s feature for Universal casts itself back to the funky, chunky days of 1976, with pet rocks and rotary dial phones, and the boyish Gru is already in cahoots with the minions as we open. Why is Gru so unhappy? Rejection is the answer; Gru aspires to join the Vicious Six, a gang of super-villains voiced by Alan Arkin, Jean Claude van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, but when the interview goes south, Gru steals a magic stone which is capable of turning the baddies into mythical Chinese creatures. The Vicious Six kidnap Gru, but his loyal pals the minions are soon hurtling to his rescue…
‘Even the smallest of us are capable of great things’ is the sunny, positive message here, and while it provides little real insight into Gru himself, there’s some great comic set-pieces here, notably when minion Otto loses the stone in an incredibly elaborate way, or when the minions team up to steal a commercial jet aircraft. Any film that features Arkin, Russell Brand and Julie Andrews (as Gru’s mom) has got eclectic taste, and the soundtrack bears that out; Patrick Hernandez’ Born to be Alive, Paul Simon’s Cecilia, the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want, plus The Ramones, The Carpenters, Linda Ronstadt and many many more hits clog the soundtrack, although a gag about Close Encounters seems a little prescient for 1976.
‘No ha ha?’ succinctly askes one of the minions’ detractors, but there’s plenty of haha here. While the narrative is forgettable and the big climax somewhat rote, there’s lots for excited parents and indulgent children to savour here; there’s good reasons why the Minions films are the most popular animated franchise right now. Love them or loathe then, Kevin, Stuart and Bob belong firmly to the comedy rule of three, and their antics work in any culture and language. Without changing the world, the minions offer a simple, shared pleasure of comic recognition; what the world need right now is round, yellow and says ‘ba-na-na’ a lot….