“What do you want to be when you grow up?” a weary teacher asks a classroom full of 11-year-olds. The kids shout out what you’d expect: president, firefighter, and the kid who says “teacher” earns a “No . . . you do not.”
Then a young Gru (Steve Carell) dressed in signature black outfit, with gray-and-black striped scarf, looks up from his fan drawing of the Vicious 6, a super-villain crew, to declare, “I want to be a super villain.” His classmates double over in laughter.
“Minions: The Rise of Gru” is the latest installment in the “Despicable Me” franchise, which includes three “Despicable Me” movies set in the present and another prequel. The attempts of adult Gru to become the most evil villain in the world are derailed by his love for his new adopted daughters and the hijinks of the Minions, his yellow pill-shaped henchmen.
“Minions,” set in the ‘70s in and around San Francisco, follows young Gru in his endeavor to join his favorite group of villains after they oust their leader, Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin). When Gru’s interview does not go as planned, he sabotages the Vicious 6′s scheme. A chaotic chase ensues and the Minions try to help.
The diabolical plot involves stealing a Chinese-zodiac-inspired artifact, which contains the spirits of zodiac animals. In terms of cultural sincerity, this plot line seems tacked on, and the characterization of Asian characters and culture feels disappointing compared to other Asian-American representations we’ve seen in animation lately — like Pixar’s “Turning Red.” Still, it does provide an excuse for Minions Kevin, Stuart, and Bob (all voiced by Pierre Coffin) to learn kung fu from Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh), a cool auntie who works as an acupuncturist in Chinatown.
“Minions” offers several Easter eggs for fans of the franchise — one of the Minions eats from a Scarlet Overkill lunchbox (she’s the main villain in the last Minions prequel) and we watch Gru meet a young Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand).
The movie is fun: The music is unironically good ― a particular standout is the Minions’ rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia”; Bob, as cute as ever, learns that “even the smallest of us are capable of great things.” And I’d be remiss not to mention Otto, a new Minion, with braces, who chases down a motorcyclist while on a tricycle. But with this many characters, the audience doesn’t spend enough time with any of them to allow for the emotional payoff the other movies in the franchise offer.
The setup of “Minions” is reminiscent of other villain origin stories, such as Buddy Pine’s (a.k.a Syndrome from “The Incredibles”). Gru’s heroes — er, villains — don’t turn out to be everything he hoped they’d be. But Gru already had villainous aspirations. What sets him apart is the fact that he’s not immediately jaded by the rejection and learns from an early age that he can’t do it all alone.
The fiercely loyal Minions he grows to love don’t let him forget that.
MINIONS: THE RISE OF GRU
Directed by Kyle Balda, Brad Ableson, and Jonathan del Val. Written By Bryan Lynch, Matthew Fogel, and Cinco Paul. Starring the voices of Steve Carell, Pierre Coffin, Michelle Yeoh, Alan Arkin, and Russell Brand. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 87 minutes. PG (some action/violence, rude humor).