Those chaotic tater tots return in 'Minions: The Rise of Gru' : Pop Culture Happy Hour Minions: The Rise Of Gru is the fifth film in the animated Despicable Me series. Set in the late 1970s, the new movie chronicles the early days of the supervillain Gru (voiced again by Steve Carell) and his relationship with the silly yellow babbling banana-loving henchmen who do his bidding.

Those chaotic tater tots return in 'Minions: The Rise of Gru'

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STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

"Minions: The Rise Of Gru" is the fifth film in the animated "Despicable Me" series. Set in the late 1970s, the new film chronicles the early days of the supervillain Gru and his relationship with the silly, yellow, babbling, banana-loving henchmen who do his bidding. I'm Stephen Thompson, and today we are talking about "Minions: The Rise Of Gru" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Joining me today is NPR film critic Bob Mondello. Hey, Bob.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Hey - good to be here.

THOMPSON: When I think Minions, I think Bob Mondello.

MONDELLO: Thanks so much.

THOMPSON: Also joining us is POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR producer Candice Lim. Hey, Candice.

CANDICE LIM, BYLINE: Hello, Stephen.

THOMPSON: A joy to have you as always. Rounding out the panel is Switched On Pop producer Reanna Cruz. Hey, Reanna.

REANNA CRUZ: Hey, Stephen. What's going on?

THOMPSON: Well, everything is going on.

CRUZ: Loaded question, loaded question.

THOMPSON: So much is going on. So the Minions franchise kicked off with 2010's "Despicable Me" and 2013's "Despicable Me 2," which was in turn followed by the 2015 prequel "Minions." This film takes place after the events of "Minions," but it is still technically a prequel to all three "Despicable Me" movies.

MONDELLO: Lordy.

THOMPSON: That paragraph took a while to craft. The first "Minions" film, the one from 2015, gave the Minions extended backstory. Basically, these little critters have helped supervillains since the dawn of time, and the first "Minions" prequel tells the story of how they come to meet the childhood supervillain Gru, whose story ends up getting told across the three official "Despicable Me" movies. In all of these films, Gru is voiced by Steve Carell, and the Minions are voiced by Pierre Coffin.

"Minions: The Rise Of Gru" is set in 1976, as we get to know young Gru as an 11-year-old who dreams of joining a supervillain team called The Vicious Six. The Vicious Six are voiced by Taraji P. Henson, who makes a meal of this role, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lucy Lawless, Dolph Lundgren, Danny Trejo and, as the ringleader Wild Knuckles, Alan Arkin. But The Vicious Six loses a member when Wild Knuckles is double-crossed during the theft of a powerful amulet. Gru ends up stealing the amulet himself, placing him and the Minions in grave danger. Along the way, several minions train under a kung fu master voiced by Michelle Yeoh. We also meet a biker voiced by RZA. It's a whole thing.

Reanna, I'm going to start with you. What is your relationship with the "Despicable Me" movies, and what did you think of "Minions: The Rise Of Gru"?

CRUZ: Oh, man. Well, first of all, I come at the Minions from a very, I think, ironic perspective, as most people in Gen Z do, I fear, where, like, I know the Minions through memes about the Minions.

THOMPSON: Yes.

CRUZ: My first familiarity with the Minions is not "Despicable Me" or the franchises or anything. It's the meme of the Minion hanging over the California...

LIM: The 101. Yep.

CRUZ: And alternatively, it's memes on, like, Facebook posted by, like, 50-year-old moms that's like, just drank wine with my cereal, and then it's, like, a picture of a Minion, right? So like - have you seen those, Stephen? They're so funny.

THOMPSON: Yes. Basically, I'm a 50-year-old wine mom, so...

CRUZ: Exactly, exactly. But like, I love those. So, like, I know the Minions through these sort of secondary points of culture rather than the Minions franchise. That being said, I watched this movie, and I came out of it liking it. I really liked it. I laughed a lot, which I wasn't expecting to. I was like, this is not my humor. This is not for me. But I laughed a lot, and I think the movie did a really great job at, like, bridging together, like, young-person humor with old references, which I think is funny because it's set in 1976. So, like, there's, like, a Don Rickles joke at a point in time that, like, I laughed at that nobody else in the theater got because it was all, like, 5-year-olds. And I thought it was so funny. All that being said, I honestly really like the Minions. I think they're so silly and quirky. The only pause that I have with the movie is there's a weird air, I think, of Orientalism throughout it...

MONDELLO: There really is.

CRUZ: ...That I think we need to - or at least I felt like I needed to acknowledge because that kind of threw me off. But at the other hand, that was like, maybe I'm thinking into it too hard. It's a children's movie. That is where I stand on "Minions: Rise Of Gru." It made me laugh, gave me a little pause but overall made me laugh.

LIM: I'm with Reanna because I sat next to them in this theater. I liked it. It was cute, fun, silly, not too long. And it was interesting because I watched this in a theater with a lot of kids and their families, and it was very cute how there were, like, Easter eggs or references from the first movie. And they would gasp, and I'd be like, oh my God, same. I remember that as well.

(LAUGHTER)

LIM: But I kind of feel like I got a pretty good idea of why this movie was being made, and it's because every single time the Minions came on screen, the kids would go wild. It was like me seeing Harry Styles, and I get that. But I think from a pop culture perspective, I'm pretty sure this is how adults felt when "Shrek" came out. Like, their kids love it. They don't get it. I'm kind of the same. I see these Minions. They're very cute. I don't totally get it, but I think there is a bit of a universal quality that ties me in enough to get me to the theater. I also don't have kids, so I'm kind of speaking of this very theoretically. But, like, I could totally see me watching this movie in the summer with, like, a niece or nephew and being like, this is good enough. This is good enough.

MONDELLO: High praise. This is good enough.

THOMPSON: Good enough, good enough. All right. How about you, Bob Mondello?

MONDELLO: Oh, well, you know that I was unpacking this. You talked to me unpacking this as we were leaving the theater. It's an incredibly complex - I was bored. No, and in fairness, it wasn't so much that I was bored. It's that I think the best possible thing for Minions is about 45 seconds long. When the first "Minions" movie came out - actually, when it was about to come out - I had a nephew who was 4 at the time, and we had recorded a 46-second bit from some advertisement, and he thought it was absolutely the funniest thing in the world. And we maybe watched that, because he was 4 years old, 700 times, and it was fun. It was amusing. And, you know, insofar as it's fun to watch a kid laugh, it's great. Listen, it's funny in spots. It's Three Stooges-ish in spots. There's a character named Bob.

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: And I very much appreciate that, even though he's a little slow. But Minions No. 5? I am tired.

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: It's like, you know, I don't know what to say about them anymore. They're modestly amusing as they're going on, but I couldn't tell you what happened. When you talked about Orientalism just a moment ago, I was thinking, oh, yeah, there's all this - and it really wasn't even registering as I was watching it because very little of the film was. I'm not terribly down on it. It's a terrific picture for 4-year-olds of all ages. They should have a great time.

THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, you do want to look at these films at the level that they're bringing to you, right? Like, you're supposed to enjoy this movie if you are a 4-year-old. I think the references to 1976 are very cleverly conceived. You don't necessarily have jokes appealing to the parents in the crowd, but you do have references. And so I definitely, like, was sitting there - I wasn't with little kids. My kids only enjoy Minions entirely ironically, entirely through the existence of memes. But as a parent, I was sitting there like, OK, if I'm watching this with a little kid and my kid's having a good time, I'm enjoying all these kind of colorful references to the '70s fashions and '70s music, this '70s soundtrack that is very much pitched to kind of Gen Z by way of Gen X.

I agree with Reanna about that unfortunate undercurrent of Orientalism. I think the whole subplot with Michelle Yeoh as kind of a kung fu master teaching the Minions - if nothing else, it just felt like padding. It just had no particular jokes attached to it. This movie is already - if you subtract credits, this movie's about 80 minutes long.

MONDELLO: Right.

THOMPSON: And 10 of that is just, like, training montages with Minions. That just flew right past me. But on balance, yeah, I'm kind of sitting there in the middle, like, this is, you know, 80 minutes passed. I was forever changed.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: You know, what more do you want? I did want to talk, though, about the way these films have evolved, for lack of a better word, from the "Despicable Me" films, which were very focused on the character Gru, voiced by Steve Carell, and become more Minions-centric as the Minions themselves have taken off as cultural forces. And to me, that throws off the comedic chemistry of these things and kind of takes them from kind of the pathos that Steve Carell brings to the kind of toddler humor of Minions. How has that evolution struck you guys?

CRUZ: Well, I guess, like, people - and I say people; I mean children - aren't necessarily watching it for the family dynamics, and I think that's where the Minions sort of come into the picture because it's like, somebody is not going to watch "Despicable Me" as a child and think, wow, they really handle Gru's emotional arc very well. They're going to watch it and be like, ha-ha, banana, you know? And it's like...

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: Who among us can resist?

CRUZ: Who among us?

MONDELLO: But wasn't the first one, though, that had the three little girls, wasn't it?

LIM: Yeah.

CRUZ: Yeah.

MONDELLO: So it actually was about family dynamics. The arc was all about Gru and the girls, and the Minions were side characters initially. So they've taken over now because they're the toy. I mean, that's why...

CRUZ: Yeah.

MONDELLO: ...Is 'cause they're the toy.

CRUZ: I was going to say, it's like the proliferation of IP.

MONDELLO: Yeah, I was just looking at the box office numbers. The four previous movies in the franchise have made $3.7 billion so far, and that's not including merchandising and licensing. You got to figure they're making a lot on toys, right? They're everywhere. You find them every place. Of course, they're going to make another movie. I mean, let's be real. But I feel like I'm being overly down on this. It's a cute little movie for kids, right? But you're talking billions and billions of dollars, and there's no reason it shouldn't be more than a cute little movie for kids.

LIM: I mean, I think that makes sense. The Minions are Universal's cash cow. This is their "Frozen." And I think the way that they've turned these, like, tater tots into video games...

(LAUGHTER)

LIM: ...And pajama pants and stuffed animals - the film drives the merch; the merch drives the film. But I will say, to Stephen's point, there is something pretty smart about the fact that they're releasing this in the summer. Every single film has been a June or July release. And it's just kind of because parents, they got to drive their kids somewhere with air conditioning.

MONDELLO: Yeah.

LIM: Kids are out of school. And if you can appeal to the parents with nostalgia and if you can appeal to the kids with, like, big actors or, like, animation, you kind of have the perfect formula for a blockbuster weekend. I'm just happy that they brought it back to Gru 'cause I did watch the first "Minions" film from 2015.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

LIM: It's interesting where the Minions, the first film, their whole trajectory is that they need a evil leader to feel purpose.

THOMPSON: Right.

LIM: And my one question from the end of this film is, like, I still don't understand their loyalty to Gru. I don't totally understand what's in it for them because, at the end of the day, this is a job, and they don't even get paid. They don't even get benefits except for maybe room and board. But that's it.

THOMPSON: But they have a calling.

LIM: You're right.

MONDELLO: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: From the beginning of time...

LIM: You're right.

THOMPSON: ...They, like, evolved - what? - did they evolve from, like, single-celled organisms?

LIM: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: Like, so throughout history, they've gravitated toward - it's best not to try to graft Minions, by the way, onto real-life history (laughter), to think about what the Minions might have done.

CRUZ: Oh, brother.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: I did think the casting of the Vicious Six was clever, and the casting of people like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Lucy Lawless, just, like, people who are familiar to the parents in the audience, I think was very clever. What did you think of, like, Taraji P. Henson and kind of the energy of this kind of group of supervillains?

CRUZ: She ate up.

(LAUGHTER)

CRUZ: She ate, and she left no crumbs.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MINIONS: THE RISE OF GRU")

TARAJI P HENSON: (As Belle Bottom) Evil is for adults who steal powerful ancient stones and wreak havoc and not for tubby little punks who should be at school.

CRUZ: I think the voice casting was very apt because for someone like me, reading the cast, I'm like, Danny Trejo and, like, Dolph Lundgren?

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

CRUZ: Are you kidding me? And that's the sort of thing - it lands with people that understand the references. And I think that's really cool.

THOMPSON: I saw a quote from Pierre Coffin, who is the voice of all the minions. He also co-directed the first four films. He doesn't co-direct this one, but he gave a quote where he likened the minions to silent film characters, and somebody mentioned "The Three Stooges." I think that kind of falls into that same description. Did you feel like the minions are tapping into something universal about film, going back even to, like, before it had sound? Is there something about the physical comedy of these characters and the way they appeal to very little kids? Is - are they tapping into something universal here?

LIM: I think from a character design perspective, the appeal is very obvious. These minions are anthropomorphic tater tots. They are very rounded in their edges. And I think Illumination calls this animation style suburban gothic, which means, like, you have very bright colors, but your humans are very tall. They're pointy. They're angular. And so - it's a bit of a French style, kind of like the villains in "Ratatouille." But I think on top of their visual appeal, a big reason why the minions are internationally box office breakers is 'cause of their language - Minionese, as it's described in the captions on Peacock. It's an amalgamation of several languages. So this is, like, pulling French and Spanish and Italian and English. I hear a little bit of Korean in there, and I think when international audiences watch American films, like, it's nice to hear your own language embedded in that and not dubbed over, not mistranslated. And that's a very natural way to grab your audience, which is through universal buy-in because if you can't look like them in animation, at least you can sound like them.

THOMPSON: Interesting.

MONDELLO: That's a really good point. And it speaks to the notion that this goes back to silent film. The universality of the minions is that they're not using language to make their point, right? I mean, they do on occasion use something that's sort of like language, but for the most part, they might as well be silent. A lot of what is funny about the minions is the noises they make. I think that's what appealed to my nephew when he was 4. The minions were about as articulate as he was. But, you know, I see more "Three Stooges" type things in this movie than I do silent film things. There's a lot of poking and hitting and bopping and...

THOMPSON: And lots of butts and farts....

MONDELLO: Right.

THOMPSON: ...And what not.

MONDELLO: You know, the creatures are cute. There's just no getting around it. And when they all got the big eyes, I thought, aw.

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: So I'm a sucker for that, too. But I - it's like, oh.

THOMPSON: I mean, there's also something to be said - kind of tapping into a little bit of what Candice said - these characters are very easy to draw.

LIM: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

THOMPSON: You know, as animation gets more and more and more sophisticated, the more Pixar is able to simulate the movement of water and all these, like, very sophisticated computer animation techniques, there is something to be said for a tater tot with eyeballs that a 4-year-old can draw. And I do think that is some of the appeal here as well.

CRUZ: I thought the animation was really great, particularly - there was one shot that floored me, actually, which was when I believe Otto, the minion, is biking through, like, the desert, and it's all the elements of nature, like, cascading over him in this, like, sped-up shot. And I was like, wow. It was truly inspired for a "Minions" movie.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: I know the word I was definitely taking away from "Minions: The Rise of Gru" was inspired.

CRUZ: Absolutely.

THOMPSON: I did want to kind of close with a question about the soundtrack. I was really not expecting a soundtrack for this particular film to feature the likes of Tame Impala, Phoebe Bridgers, H.E.R., Brittany Howard, RZA, St. Vincent and Thundercat. I mean, this is, like, a cool indie soundtrack of all these artists playing staple canon songs from the '70s. What did you think of the soundtrack and the way it's integrated into this film?

CRUZ: I like it. I think some of the songs on the soundtrack are interesting choices where I'm like, I would never think Caroline Polachek could do Nancy Sinatra, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

CRUZ: Or I never would have pegged St. Vincent as a "Funkytown" cover artist, you know? And I think that speaks to what we've been talking about, about this movie specifically in the "Minions" franchise, sort of bridging together, like, older and younger audiences, because I'm not going to say that, like, a child will recognize hearing Thundercat, but it kind of speaks to the sort of universality of the movie because the "Fly Like An Eagle" cover is, like, when they're in the airplane. And I thought that was so silly. I was like, wow, like, Thundercat in this moment - kind of based. Like, that's so cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLY LIKE AN EAGLE")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) I want to fly like an eagle to the sea. Fly like an eagle. Let my spirit carry me. Fly like an eagle till I'm free.

CRUZ: And hinging the movie around the Linda Ronstadt song "You're No Good" also made me really laugh, and the fact that Weyes Blood covers it is just really interesting. It kind of gives the movie sort of this indie cred.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE NO GOOD")

WEYES BLOOD: (Singing) You're no good. You're no good. You're no good. Baby you're no good. I'm going to say it again. You're no good. You're no good. You're no good. Baby, you're no good.

LIM: I definitely will admit that when I heard Jack Antonoff, Grammy Award-winning producer, was set to work on the soundtrack, I was very confused, questioning - selling out came to my mind. I will not lie, though. This possibly could be a good vehicle for an Oscars play because when Pharrell did "Happy" for "Despicable Me 2," he was nominated for an Oscar. He was nominated for best original song in 2014. He lost to "Let It Go" from "Frozen" - fair. But he did win a Grammy for the song, and he won a Grammy for doing the music video. So I don't think it's wild to say Jack Antonoff is trying to get on the EGOT bag. I get it.

(LAUGHTER)

LIM: I get it. I do it, too. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

CRUZ: That song was one of the biggest songs in the world and also is supremely uncool.

(LAUGHTER)

CRUZ: And I think the Minions team realized that because they kind of, I feel, wanted to switch it up to bring cool new artists in with songs that people actually wanted to listen to, helmed by the it producer of the moment. And I think that's a move that is honestly to their benefit because now I'm like, wow, "Minions" soundtrack level, though.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: I think we can all agree on that. We want to know what you think about "Minions: The Rise Of Gru," and about the "Despicable Me" movies in general. Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh, or tweet us @pchh. Up next, what is making us happy this week?

Now it's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week - what is making us happy this week? Reanna Cruz, what's making you happy this week?

CRUZ: So my past month and a half has found me doing a deep dive into the world of professional wrestling.

THOMPSON: Nice.

CRUZ: The wrestling promotion All Elite Wrestling came to Los Angeles. I decided to pop through, see what it's all about, because I was never a kid that watched wrestling. I was very blind to the whole scene. And I went to see wrestling live, and my life is forever changed. Like, I am fully, fully wrestling-pilled. I'm such in the deep end. I'm watching old episodes of "Raw" on Peacock. Like, it's great. And I really like it because it feels like camaraderie, in a sense, where all of the fighting in wrestling that I really enjoy, contrary to, like, MMA or other forms of combat, is wrestling feels all consensual. You see them setting each other up for dives. They kind of play off of one another. The injuries are real, but whenever somebody gets, like, a chair hitten (ph) over their head, they've agreed to beforehand to have a chair hit over their head. Like, it's very camaraderie-based. And I really like that, and it feels like I'm watching a community interact with one another. And on the other side of that, there's storylines to follow, and there's character arcs, and it's like, oh, this person is bad this week. Cool, let's boo him. And when I get off of work at the end of the day, I find myself turning on wrestling, kind of just zoning out for a few hours, and I find it to be very, very healing.

THOMPSON: Nice. Thank you, Reanna. Candice Lim, what's making you happy this week?

LIM: So my pick this week is "The Valet" on Hulu. It's a new film starring Samara Weaving. She plays, like, this actress who kind of reminds me of, like, a Margot Robbie, Dakota Johnson type. She has, like, this big movie coming out. It is a Amelia Earhart biopic. And she gets involved in this scandalous affair, so to tame the tabloids, Eugenio Derbez, he comes in. He's a valet in Beverly Hills. He's hired to be in a fake relationship with her. And it's a very fun little film of high jinks, but what I really enjoyed about the film is that it's kind of about the LA when you drive east on Wilshire. It's, like, Pico, Koreatown, Westlake, MacArthur Park, and these are the neighborhoods that are really what LA is about. But also this film is marketed as a rom-com of sorts, and in this really beautiful twist, the rom does not actually happen between the leads, and it kind of leads to this emotional climax that made me cry on a Saturday night. I fully sobbed my ass off, and that alone made the payoff worth it. So that's "The Valet," directed by Richard Wong, now streaming on Hulu.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Candice. Bob Mondello, what's making you happy this week?

MONDELLO: I've just spent weeks and weeks and weeks reading 1,000 pages of Oscar Hammerstein letters for a piece I was doing on ATC a couple of weeks ago. And in the middle of it, I got really into musical comedy of the 1950s and '60s that I picked up another book that had been sent to me called "Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs Of Mary Rogers." Now, Mary Rogers is Richard Rogers's daughter, Richard Rodgers of Rodgers and Hammerstein. So the guy who wrote "South Pacific" and "Oklahoma" and all kinds of other things - his daughter wrote a show called "Once Upon A Mattress," and the big song from that is called "Shy." This woman is not shy, and what she writes in this memoirs, which were co-authored by Jesse Green, the New York Times theater critic, is so - well, outspoken is a good word. I mean, the things she says about her father - you just can't imagine anybody saying in polite conversation. I mean, she is just breathtaking in her takedowns of absolutely everybody you regard as remotely famous from that era. She was madly in love with Stephen Sondheim at the age of 13, which must have been a problem. Just everything about this is fascinating reading. About a third of the book is Jesse Green's footnotes in the most acerbic way possible. And it is hilarious. It's wonderful reading. So anyway, it's called "Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs Of Mary Rogers."

THOMPSON: Wonderful. Thank you, Bob Mondello. So what is making me happy this week is the launch last week of Season 6 of Rosewave, NPR Music's summer music series celebrating kind of the best in kind of music for leisure, music for backyard patios, music for just reveling in the simple joys of life. These are trying times, and Rosewave always brings such a smile to my face. Our colleague Lars Gotrich kind of oversaw the putting together of this particular season, which is kind of more genre-diverse than ever before. And it comes with this wonderful essay in which Lars writes, you are ready to make Greta Gerwig's Barbie movie your entire personality. And I just thought, what could be better than having us all try to evoke the feelings - if you have not seen the picture of Ryan Gosling as Ken...

CRUZ: Life-changing.

THOMPSON: ...It is A, life-changing, and B, to me the total spirit of Rosewave. You can stream it through four different streaming services. Lars even did the kindness of putting together a clean version of this playlist that families can enjoy together. So anyway, what is making me enormously happy is the return of that summertime favorite. That is NPR Music's Rosewave series, and that is what is making me happy this week. If you want links for what we recommended, plus some more recommendations, sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter.

That brings us to the end of our show. Bob Mondello, Candice Lim, Reanna Cruz, thanks to all of you for being here.

MONDELLO: Thank you.

LIM: Thanks, Stephen.

CRUZ: Thanks, Stephen.

THOMPSON: This episode was produced by Mike Katzif and Candice Lim and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides the music you are bobbing your head to right now. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Stephen Thompson, and we will see you all next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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