From 2010 to 2017, the world of Despicable Me was thrust upon the general public. It told the story of master villain Gru (Steve Carell) and his army of, well, minions! Baby faced, gibberish speaking, custard-yellow skinned beans who wear blue dungarees and created a whole new pop culture craze. Over $3bn in box-office revenue later including a prequel spin-off, computer games, toys, books and electronics, the Minions are a more powerful brand than Disney's Toy Story when it comes to winning over audiences. The Minions are a cute and crazy collection of creatures (?) who speak to any race, sex, language or persuasion. There is no overt message in how they talk or think, but the one thing they do convey is the enduring power of friendship, loyalty and fun, and that is understood by anyone and everyone.
This second spin-off, prequel/sequel for the Minions brings them back together with Gru, their new and future boss, who begins to develop a life of crime and family-friend villainy in a bid to become the best villain of all time! You may remember from the Despicable Me trilogy, Gru and his Minions have had many life-changing adventures, each with their own unique touch of comedy and heart. Now, it's time to go back and see where it all started, or rather, where it's heading. We left them back in 2015 as their first adventure in the 1960s came to a close, and pick up in the 1970s with eleven year old Gru out to prove his worth and join the famous Vicious 6 gang. It's just not going to be as easy as expected, especially with sneaky double-crossings, dangerous kung-fu chickens and magical medallions in play!
We are heading back to familiar territory with the welcome return of Steve Carrell voicing young Gru in that distinct accent, full of cheek, sly with and semi-despicable attitude you can't help but find amusing. Pierre Coffin is also back as the voice of his many Minions, including frontrunners Kevin, Stuart and Bob, and also a new addition in the likes of braces wearing Otto. The rest of the Minions bumble along in the background for many observational gags and goofs, but it's Kevin, Stuart and Bob who remain the poster boys for this Minions franchise now. Not even Otto stands out as much as hoped, even though he is given a nice little side adventure. The story itself is split, giving three mini narratives of adventure that start together, fan out, and unite for the climax. Gru sets out to learn how to be the best villain he can from legendary crook Wild Knuckles, voiced by Alan Arkin, all the while being chased down by a new master villain, Belle Bottom, voiced by Taraji P. Henson, and her sidekicks in the Vicious 6 gang who are out to harness a powerful Chinese Zodiac medallion to give them unlimited power.
Meanwhile, the three Minions are running around trying to find Gru and Knuckles, while evading various calamities such as piloting a passenger plane and learning kung-fu from the chiropractor Master Chow, voice brilliantly by Michelle Yeoh. Still with me? Otto is out on his mission to recover the Chinese Zodiac medallion that Gru managed to steal, but since lost, hence the Vicious 6 hunting him down.
It's a bumbling thread of stories that works better on screen, and it's not as complex as it sounds and thankfully moves by at a brisk pace, never isolating characters and always keeping them in touch and having their stories meaningful and adding to the other. There's plenty of room in each for the now trademark style of Minion morals to crop up, such as believing in your abilities, depending on your friends, doing what is right (even if you're a villain) and never giving up when life is tough. But after all this by the books narrative, it's the kids who will constantly be amused by the wacky, vibrant, full-on crazy comedy from the Minions and eye-popping animation that has everything from a wild passenger plane ride, Chinatown kung-fu battles and explosive car chases. Oh, and a few silly fart gags and lots of naked Minion bums to cause a chuckle even from the grown-ups!
The story is really quite harmless, and there are some great visual gags here and there, but sometimes it feels a little loose around the edges and not very rewarding when it comes to taking something away from this. Maybe the Minions need to explore streaming TV to make the most of their appeal, saving bigger, fresher outings for the big screen instead of the more pedestrian.
With so many characters in the background, keep an ear out for Jean Claude Van-Damme having delectable fun as villain Jean-Clawed, sporting a robotic lobster claw for a hand (see what they did there), Dolph Lundgrun as grunting villain Svengeance, Danny Trejo as Stronghold and Lucy Lawless as Nun-Chuck. They don't get much time to really shine, but grunt and mumble and bring their characters to life well. Franchise regulars Russell Brand, Julie Andrews and Steve Coogan also pop-up in blink and you'll miss them returns, all helping join little dots to build this Minion-verse together.
Somehow it feels there's little fresh to offer in the Minion world of stories. It often blurs with the original Minions in terms of plot and character developments – the Minions race around trying to save the day by besting badder people than them, ultimately for a good cause. But now we have Gru in the mix, who at least gives us more of a reminder why we're here in the first place. The animation is textbook Illumination, with quirky character models and bright colours, and some decent work in the 70s themed kung-fu fighting sequences and James Bond-esque homages. This period lends itself far better to action than the laid back 60s.
But, as stated, even if the Rise Of Gru story isn't as witty or observant as the first outing and not as deep and rewarding as the Despicable Me films, it's those yellow guys who bounce around the screen along to a toe-tapping 1970s soundtrack with plenty of fun and fast action. The Minions never let up and have as much comical energy as the young (and old) at heart watching who just want to feel a little silly at times, and you can't fault them for that.
Minions: The Rise of Gru is released in UK cinemas on June 26th.