Producers: Chris Meledandri, Janet Healy and Chris Reynaud   Director: Kyle Balda, Brad Ableson, Jonathan Del Val  Screenplay: Brian Lynch and Matthew Fogel   Cast: Steve Carell, Pierre Coffin, Taraji P. Henson, Michelle Yeoh, Russell Brand, RZA, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lucy Lawless, Dolph Lundgren, Danny Trejo, Julie Andrews and Alan Arkin   Distributor: Universal

Grade: C

Whatever charm the “Despicable Me” franchise might have generated over the course of its four installments since 2010—three “Despicable” entries and the first “Minions” spin-off—pretty much evaporates with this episode, which is being marketed as a follow-up to the “Minions” movie but is more like “Despicable Me 4: The Prequel,” since Steve Carell’s Gru gets about as much screen time as the four “star” Minions do.

The scattershot script jumps back in time to 1976, when Gru’s just an eleven-year old in elementary school, looking like a miniature version of his older self and making his classmates chortle when he announces that his goal in life is to be a super-villain.  But he’s already made strides in that direction, having acquired an army of “henchmen” in the Minions, who applied for the job in response to a flyer and whom he reluctantly took on (much to the disapproval of his mother, voiced by Julie Andrews).  In addition, his application for possible admission to the most notorious coterie of villains in the world—the Vicious Six, composed of Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), Stronghold (Danny Trejo), Nunchuck (Lucy Lawless), Svengeance (Dolph Lundgren), Jean-Clawed (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and his idol, cabal leader Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin)—has been accepted.

His audition is at a record store, where, in a gag derived from the “Mission Impossible” TV show (one of many nostalgic seventies references designed to keep older members of the audience awake), he’s escorted by his future arch-enemy Nefario (Russell Brand)—still just a humble clerk—to a listening booth that takes him to the villains’ subterranean lair.  There he’s dismissed by Belle as a mere kid, and also learns to his horror that Knuckles was betrayed and left to die by the others during their latest heist, of the Zodiac Stone, a mystical amulet kept in a jungle fortress.  Gru impulsively steals the jewel, which of course is lost by fumbling Otto (Pierre Coffin, who voices all the Minions) while Gru escapes with Kevin, Stuart and Bob, the other three yellow critters who have followed him to the shop.

At this point the movie divides into three separate plot threads.  Gru is kidnapped by Knuckles, who’s survived and wants to get the jewel back.  Assuming Gru still has it, he takes him to his base in San Francisco and tortures him with disco music for its whereabouts, but eventually becomes his mentor instead.  Otto tries to find the jewel he’s lost, and discovers it’s wound up being worn by a good-natured biker (RZA) who offers him a ride to California.  Meanwhile Kevin, Stuart and Bob have made their way to the city by taking control of a passenger jet (a rather tasteless episode in these days of difficult air travel), where they go through a slapstick regimen of kung-fu with acupuncturist Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh), before the big finale at a parade in Chinatown, where the jewel transforms what are now the Vicious Five into gigantic beasts for a culminating confrontation.

There are some chuckles along the way, especially for those who catch the seventies stuff, but overall the movie is a disjointed, patchwork affair, a brew into which different plot threads appear to have been tossed helter-skelter as they were idly suggested in script conferences.  It’s colorful and energetic, of course, but also frenzied and exhausting, and many of the characters—the Vicious 5 in particular, and RZA’s biker, who seems to have been added for reasons of demographic calculation—are surprisingly dull, despite Henson’s vocal ferocity as the Afro-coiffed Belle.  The other voice work is good enough, with Carell adding a squeaky note to his heavy accent to indicate Gru’s youth and Yeoh making a stern, exasperated taskmaster.  Though Andrews gets limited opportunity to show off her growl as Gru’s fearsome mother, Arkin brings his patented deadpan tones to Knuckles, who emerges as a major character here, with as much screen time as the established ones, if not an especially lovable one. 

This second Minions movie shows a lot of effort on the part of all involved, and youngsters weaned on the series (as well as nostalgia-thirsty adults) will probably find it amusingly hectic, but despite the word “Rise” in the title, it reaches no great heights.