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Minions happily take a back seat in the ’70s-inspired ‘Rise of Gru’

‘Despicable Me’ origin story figures out that less is more

Steve Carell's Gru, center, is back front and center for the “Despicable Me” spinoff “Minions: The Rise of Gru.” (Illumination Entertainment/Universal Pictures/AP)
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(2.5 stars)

If the appeal of the Minions — those banana-yellow, gibberish-spouting rascals first seen in 2010’s “Despicable Me” — is wearing thin, give “Minions: The Rise of Gru” credit: After their over-the-top 2015 prequel, the second spinoff seems to recognize that less is more.

Having appeared in four movies, numerous short films and a Universal Studios ride, among myriad other media, the subservient scamps return to playing second fiddle in “The Rise of Gru.” By shifting the spotlight to the antihero Gru, who was the focus of the three “Despicable Me” films, this installment at least attempts to combat Minions oversaturation. Packing their shtick into a speedy 87 minutes, returning director Kyle Balda delivers a perfectly painless romp that should enthrall kids, entertain adults and keep Minion cosplayers employed for many a birthday party to come.

After the endearingly innocent henchmen spent the first spinoff as nomads in search of a suitable supervillain to serve, we catch up with the Minions (all voiced by Pierre Coffin) in 1976, doing the bidding of an 11-year-old Gru. At this point, Gru (an amusingly nasal Steve Carell) is limited to small-time shenanigans: using magnets to cheat at the arcade, a cheese gun to cut in line at the ice cream shop and a fart bomb to clear out a packed showing of “Jaws.” But when a villainous team called the Vicious 6 backstabs its leader, the aging Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin, teaming up with Carell for a stealth “Little Miss Sunshine” reunion), Gru lands an interview with the group to replace his idol.

Written by Brian Lynch and Matthew Fogel, “The Rise of Gru” follows the 1960-set, British Invasion-fueled aesthetic of the first “Minions” movie with a 1970s pop-culture pastiche. While the “Despicable Me” films were always a riff on the campiest of Bond villains, this movie leans into that influence with a 007-inspired opening credits sequence, set to a cover of the Sonny Bono-penned “Bang Bang.”

That song also played over the credits of a more unlikely inspiration: Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, a gonzo sendup of 1970s kung-fu. (The Minions, like Uma Thurman’s Kill Bill heroine, even don Bruce Lee-inspired yellow jumpsuits.) In “The Rise of Gru,” we find Michelle Yeoh continuing her “Shang-Chi”- and “Everything Everywhere All at Once”-fueled action renaissance as a martial arts master who teaches the three main Minions — Kevin, Stuart and Bob — a thing or two about fighting back.

The more inspired newcomers are the Vicious 6, including Taraji P. Henson as Belle Bottom, a usurper who wields her chain belt as a weapon, and the hilarious Lucy Lawless as Nun-Chuck, a woman of the cloth with a thirst for violence. Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Jean Clawed, Dolph Lundgren’s Svengeance and Danny Trejo’s Stronghold round out the punning group, whose lair is hidden beneath a record store cleverly called Criminal Records. Joining Carell and Coffin among the returning cast members are Russell Brand as the impulsive inventor Dr. Nefario and Julie Andrews as Gru’s hands-off mother.

It all makes for a slight but satisfying Gru origin story, as the budding baddie tries to impress the Vicious 6 and antagonizes Arkin’s vengeful Wild Knuckles along the way. But it’s also a “Minions” movie, which means lots of silly sight gags and pratfalls for the titular tykes, who adorably refer to Gru as their “mini-boss.” Although the humor doesn’t wear out its welcome, the whiz-bang action sequences do, especially when the unnecessarily bombastic, San Francisco-set finale arrives. Visually, the kinetic movie is occasionally inventive but disappointingly content to paint by numbers.

If you’re coming for the Jack Antonoff-produced compilation of ’70s (or ’70s-inspired) tunes, “The Rise of Gru” doesn’t hold back. Featured on the track list: “Turn Up the Sunshine,” a new song performed by Diana Ross featuring Tame Impala, along with such covers as St. Vincent’s version of Lipps Inc.’s “Funkytown” and Phoebe Bridgers’s take on the Carpenters’ “Goodbye to Love.” Whether it’s Gru’s gadgets, the Minions’ antics or those catchy needle drops, “The Rise of Gru” does know how to play the hits.

PG. At area theaters. Contains some action, violence and rude humor. 87 minutes.

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