“Minions: The Rise of Gru” may be filled with familiar, uh, faces of the lovable yellow creatures, but it transports them back to the 1970s, when Gru (still voiced by Steve Carell) was a supervillian in training and the Minions were looking to fit into his burgeoning world.
The latest installment of the popular franchise from Universal and Illumination was directed by Kyle Balda, himself a veteran of the world of the Minions and a child of the ’70s. The animation team had to distill tons of research of the colors, the music, the architecture, clothes and hairstyles of the mid-1970s for the film, which follows elementary school student Gru as he applies to join the Vicious 6, a team of supervillians, but of course, events, with the help of the Minions, go awry.
The feature has fun referencing kung fu movies of the ’70s, something Balda loves. Much of the action is set in San Francisco and the city’s famous Chinatown, with the venerable Michelle Yeoh playing a key role as martial arts Master Chow, who trains three of the Minions for battle.
Jackie Chan is one of the biggest influences of the training and fight scenes. “Jackie Chan across the board because his films have such a great blend of really high stakes action and comedy. It’s sort of a big influence for the Minions,” Balda says. In the past films, Charlie Chaplin and Peters Sellers influenced the Minions’ animators because with them, “everything is based on pantomime” with them.
“And Jackie Chan is just brilliant at bringing the acting and the comedy into the action,” Balda says. “One of the clearest winks [to kung fu films] I would say, is more to Stephen Chow and things like ‘Shaolin Soccer’ and ‘Kung Fu Hustle,’ which you can really see with Master Chow. Her character is really grounded in that kind of comedy. There’s also a little bit of ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ too.”
But one of the biggest stars of the era, Bruce Lee, was also a big influence. “The Minions even dressed up like him when they went to go rescue Gru,” Balda says.
The Minions pay homage to Bruce Lee in their yellow suits.
Balda and the animation team went with the more colorful, pumped up ’70s in their designs, foregoing the beige and avocado tones ubiquitous in kitchens and tasteful clothes of the period. The animation team meticulously researched the 1970s using books, archival material, YouTube and other sources on the internet.
“A lot of times, it was just hard to make the choice from some of the options. For example, there was an alternate version of the opening credits that ended up like the ‘Brady Bunch,’ with the characters in that tic tac toe [grid.] But then we opted for the James Bond-style opening.”
Balda says, “Brad Abelson, who was the co-director on the film, did a lot of research in terms of comedy punch-up and that sort of thing to find references that would really connect with people of our generation.”
Balda and the animators worked in their own memories of cultural touchstones of the era, including a Tupperware party hosted by Gru’s mother (voiced by Julie Andrews) and a screening of quintessential 1970s pic “Jaws.”
“I think the Avon and Tupperware culture that happened then, was just something that myself and a lot of people who worked on the film remembered from their childhoods, and we just felt like this would be something that would really connect with people because you know, I remember those those Tupperware parties happening, with the deviled eggs and all that kind of stuff. There’s so many touchstones like that, and we wanted to find the ones that also just worked well with the telling of the story.”
And although San Francisco itself has a timeless look, “there’s also a lot of macrame in Gru’s mom’s house and an owl [decoration]” that Balda’s mom had in their house.
And as for “Jaws,” “I think a big part of it is that whenever you hear anyone talking about ‘Jaws,’ it’s like the first time they ever waited in a really long line to see a movie.” Gru and the Minions cut in line to sneak into the theater. And because Gru was “always trying to do things against convention and the Minions and Gru ended up rooting for the shark in the film, but you know, for me personally like so many people, I couldn’t go into a swimming pool [after seeing the film]. Just the psychological effects it had on me and it was one of the movies that made me want to make movies.”
Another big reference is to “Easy Rider,” when newest Minion Otto hitches a ride to San Francisco on a custom chopper. The biker doesn’t wear a helmet, a la Peter Fonda, but Otto dons a vintage helmet, complete with era-specific decoration. “The striping work on it was inspired by something that we had seen on a van from one of those ‘70s photos. We just adapted it for the for the helmet,” Balda says.
The Vicious 6’s lair is underneath an independent record store, something ubiquitous in the ’70s. “A lot of it came about through thinking, it’s using sort of like James Bond, it’s like a great touchstone for films. What’s the secret face of an underground villain lair? So thinking of something really pedestrian, like a record store, but then that also afforded us lots of things [to play with], like just even the fun of it being called Criminal Records.” Linda Ronstadt’s single “You’re No Good” was the password to the underground operations, and Gru had to play it backwards for access, referencing the “satanic panic” of the era when people were still reading devilish meaning into playing records backwards.The Vicious 6 themselves includes some familiar tropes but injected with comedy. There’s the glamorous Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), with her stylish Afro and jumpsuit, and old biker Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin), but then they veer into the hilariously absurd: Jean-Clawed, who does, indeed, have a giant lobster claw appendage and is voiced by Jean-Claude Van Damme.
“The casting idea for Jean-Claude Van Damme came really early on,” Balda says. “It started as a drawing of this character with an enormous lobster claw, and it seemed natural that his name would be Jean-Clawed. Then came the idea to have him be voiced by Jean-Claude Van Damme, and we were thrilled when he actually agreed to do it!”
Then there’s Svengeance, voiced by Dolph Lundgren; Stronghold, voiced by Danny Trejo; and Nun-Chuck, voiced by Lucy Lawless. These are action-movie stars that everybody loves, but also, “they are the adversaries to Gru and, and we want to give some sense of stakes,” says Balda. But they look so over the top, “so there’s a sort of a balance there and the irony of absolutely not taking ourselves very seriously.”
But the films always had to balance Gru as a villain and comedy.
“All the villains that we’ve had in the ‘Despicable Me’ films and the Minion films, there’s always been like a very ridiculous twist on them. Something really silly because ultimately we’re just setting out to make a funny film and to have fun. … But there’s nothing truly bad about him; same with the Minions, there’s nothing truly evil about them. And there’s an innocence to these characters that they don’t even know they’re not even aware of — their idea of being bad is, you know, cutting in front of a line.”