Minions: The Rise of Gru finds the fun by going back in time

The goals of animated properties can be very different. For instance, anything coming from Disney and/or Pixar tends to have relatable emotional stakes, even if the stories are fantastical. But from the start, the Despicable Me franchise has been about pure comedy, whether involving the dastardly adventures of Gru (Steve Carell) or the bumblings of his loyal yellow henchmen, the Minions.

After getting their own prequel spinoff in 2015, the little yellow guys are back in the spotlight in Minions: The Rise of Gru. Set in 1976, Gru is a 12-year-old villain wannabe who idolizes a group known as the Vicious 6. That group consists of Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin), Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), Jean-Clawed (Jean-Claude Van Damme), Svengeance (Dolph Lundgren), Stronghold (Danny Trejo), and Nun-Chucks (Lucy Lawless).

The hunt for an ancient artifact is the MacGuffin of the film, throwing Gru, the Vicious 6, and the Minions together in various permutations. But it’s just an excuse for the characters to travel around the United States and see what hijinks will arise. Gru doggedly pursues different members of the Vicious 6, while Minions like Kevin, Stuart, Bob, and Otto (all voiced by Pierre Coffin) attempt to help in their own unique ways.

Co-directed by Kyle Balda, Brad Ableson, and Jonathan Del Val, and written by Matthew Fogel, the film is essentially split in two, with Gru on one side and the Minions on the other. The balance between Gru and the Minions is needed, as too much time spent with either on their own threatens to become character overload. The filmmakers know this, shifting back-and-forth regularly, but not so often that it kills the humor the two sides generate.

The new characters are just okay, as their storyline is never all that compelling. The focus is on a rivalry between Wild Knuckles and Belle Bottom, with those two characters getting way more fleshed out than the other four. As it stands, it’s just a slightly fun Easter egg that those four are voiced by action stars of the ‘80s and ‘90s — nothing more, nothing less.

Something that does stand out is the animation, which has noticeably improved. Several characters are not nearly as cartoonish as most characters have tended to be in the series, and things like water, hair, and other small details pop. The filmmakers are obviously not going for realism like other animated films, but it appears there was a concerted effort to step up their game this time around.

You’d think that the Minions would lose their ability to entertain since they essentially do the same things over and over again, but the filmmakers keep the characters interesting. Adding in the new Otto helps, as he’s distinct enough from the others to add something fresh. It’s also fun to see Gru at a younger age, giving him a different dimension from his previous appearances.

With an enjoyable story that never gets annoying and a renewed approach toward familiar characters, Minions: The Rise of Gru is the most successful film in the Despicable Me franchise since the original. The only emotion the movie elicits is happiness, as the goofiness of the Minions and others proves irresistible.

Minions: The Rise of Gru opens in theaters on July 1.

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