“The Rise of Gru” sounds like a euphemism for acid reflux, whether you’re a stranger to the Despicable Me films or not. Five films into Illumination Entertainment’s determinedly manic animated franchise, most grown-up viewers are surely feeling the effects of overindulgence. At this point, how many more Minions – those smirking yellow goggled-and-dungarees’d punchbags, cackling and jabbering in a shrill, quasi-Hispanic argot – can a human being above the age of 13 possibly take?
Yet this latest, 1970s-set instalment, directed by series stalwart Kyle Balda and written by Brian Lynch and Matthew Fogel, is an unexpected treat, and by far the series punchiest and most polished entry yet. That’s not to say the film doesn’t feel like a binge: in fact, it feeds its audience mayhem and gags at funnel-down-the-throat, foie-gras-producing speed. Within the opening 10 minutes alone it tosses out a breakneck car chase, a jungle temple raid, and even a spoof Bond theme song, complete with a kaleidoscopic crystal backdrop and silhouetted Minions gyrating to the beat.
But every sketch has been engineered for speed and impact, and every ounce of unnecessary plot (which appears to have been most of it) ruthlessly excised. As such, the series has never felt closer to its spiritual forebears: the golden-age Looney Tunes shorts of the 1940s and ’50s, where proudly one-note characters had the jokes mercilessly beaten out of them, until it was time to move on to the next preposterous set-up. At its best, Minions: The Rise of Gru does nothing more complex than stylishly replicate that format. Look, here’s a tight five minutes of the Minions learning kung fu. Now here’s another five of them trying to fly a passenger jet.
When the film hits upon “Let’s see what would happen if the Minions ran a funeral”, the no-joke-unattempted ethos surpasses mere hyperactivity and starts to look genuinely impressive. The animation is technically wondrous – the colour and detail amazes, while the Minions themselves have never looked more bouncily robust – but it’s always in service of the overriding slapstick agenda. Even the flat, side-on compositions – less than ideal for showing off graphical prowess – feel like knowing evocations of the deadpan staging of vintage cartoons.
The story, insofar as there is one, unfolds during the aspiring megalomaniac Gru’s formative years – as before, Gru is voiced by Steve Carell, who makes only the barest of vocal concessions to the fact the character is now only 12 years old. (Which makes sense: for the young target audience, recognition matters most.) Sitting in his bedroom, while his yoga-mad mother (Julie Andrews) stretches and flexes in the room across the hall, his young lad idolises the Vicious 6, a local and seemingly unthwartable supervillain collective.
So, when a vacancy on the team emerges, he applies for the gig, only to find himself in possession of a magical amulet which is the centrepiece to their next diabolical wheeze, and which the Minions promptly lose. A multi-strand chase for this artefact ensues: the action runs from suburbia to San Francisco, with lots of clichéd period set-dressing (vinyl records, glitter balls, and so on) and contemporary cover versions of familiar 70s grooves en route.
There are a handful of callbacks to the earlier films including a Russell Brand cameo, whose Doctor Nefario last graced the series in 2015. Brand’s voice is just as jarring as it was back then – the character still doesn’t look remotely like he’s from from Essex, nor has any conceivable need to be from there – though younger viewers will probably appreciate the chance to play join-the-franchise-dots. In the end, it’s all just part of the cheerful barrage, and in the event a sketch doesn’t land, there’ll be another along in a couple of milliseconds.
U cert, 88 min. In cinemas from Friday July 1