When the aliens finally invade, they will find the vestiges of our Minions-based civilization and wonder just what the hell happened here. Having lived through it, I could not possibly begin to explain just how these hot dog-shaped, banana-hued, gibberish-speaking overlords came to infiltrate our culture at every level, storming onto screens big and small, emblazoned onto merchandise, looming large on inflatable statuary, haunting our nightmares.
The grasp these inexplicable animated creatures hold on cinema is insidious, and they continue their reign of terror in their latest cinematic dispatch, “Minions: The Rise of Gru.” They’ve overthrown their masters in the “Despicable Me” franchise, wresting top billing away for themselves. “The Rise of Gru” is just another “Despicable Me” movie, a supervillain origin story for beaky-nosed, scarf-wearing, evil aspirant Gru (Steve Carell).
The film, directed by “Minions” and “Despicable Me 3” director Kyle Balda and written by Matthew Fogel and Brian Lynch, takes us back to the groovy 1970s to understand Gru’s childhood as a young person idolizing the Vicious 6, a cadre of supervillains. The filmmakers draw from a variety of ’70s genre flicks for aesthetic inspiration, including Blaxploitation and martial arts movies.
Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson) is molded in the shape of ‘70s superstar Pam Grier, while the Michelle Yeoh-voiced Master Chow, a San Francisco Chinatown acupuncturist, serves as a kung fu guru for three of Gru’s Minion underlings. Alan Arkin voices villain Wild Knuckles, Gru’s idol, who ends up on the outs with the Vicious 6. His tough ‘70s look and San Francisco lair, a wonky Victorian mansion, call to mind the 1974 Arkin-starring cop romp “Freebie and the Bean,” or any number of movies of that era starring Elliot Gould.
These references, and the relentless assault of ‘70s needle-drops, are fun, to a point, but the movie itself is 87 minutes of pure chaos, a hallucinatory, cacophonous fever dream of nonsensical subplots and Minion gibberish. Gru tries to join the Vicious 6, but when they reject his membership because he’s a child (fair), he attempts to prove himself by stealing a gold medallion bewilderingly named “the Zodiac Stone” (it’s not a stone).
Three of his Minions learn kung fu from Master Chow after hijacking a plane to San Francisco, while the chubby Minion with braces ends up on an “Easy Rider”-style motorcycle road trip. Meanwhile, Gru receives his villain training from Wild Knuckles, so they can all face off with the rest of the Vicious 6 during the “Godzilla”-inspired climax. Along the way, Gru learns to appreciate working as a team, embracing his Minions as the helpers they are.
“Minions: The Rise of Gru” features a star-studded voice cast, but Lucy Lawless, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Julie Andrews couldn’t have spent more than 10 minutes in the recording booth for this one. This is all Minions, all the time, and I suppose one must salute Pierre Coffin, the French animator who directed the original “Despicable Me” and provides the voices for the Minions. Now there’s an origin story that might be more interesting — or at least illuminating — than “The Rise of Gru,” which is at least, blessedly short.