Universal Studios Hollywood taps into ‘Despicable Me’s’ minion power
Guests are fastened into their seats in Gru’s laboratory as part of the new Minion Mayhem attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood.(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)
Their yellow, begoggled faces have covered billboards, blanketed toy store shelves, appeared in music videos and mobile games. So it’s only logical that family cinema’s ubiquitous, gibberish-speaking stars, the minions of “Despicable Me,” now have their own theme park attraction — Despicable Me Minion Mayhem — at Universal Studios Hollywood.
For the uninitiated, “Despicable Me” is an animated film series centered on Gru, a supervillain voiced by Steve Carell who, uncharacteristically for a man who makes his living trying to steal the moon, adopts three daughters from an orphanage. When the first “Despicable Me” movie became a surprise hit in 2010 on the strength of its internationally accessible humor and warmth, the minions — Gru’s mischievous support staff — were its breakout stars.
FOR THE RECORD:
“Despicable Me” ride: An April 6 article about the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride incorrectly indicated that the attraction would open April 10. It was scheduled to open April 12. It also described the ride as not being part of Universal Studios’ $1.6-billion, 25-year expansion plan. The ride is part of that plan. —
The “Despicable Me” films grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide and two more are due — in 2015, Universal Pictures will release “The Minions,” a spinoff origins story about the characters, and in 2017 the studio plans “Despicable Me 3.”
The chief task for the creators of the new attraction, which opens to the public on April 12, was to tell an interactive story in the ride that fit within the evolving narrative of the minions, according to Chris Meledandri, founder and chief executive of Illumination Entertainment, the Santa Monica-based animation company behind the films.
“It was important for us to make sure the experience of the ride was true to the experience of the film but was taking you beyond where you went in the first movie,” Meledandri said. “We also didn’t want to step on where we were going in either the minion movie or the sequel.”
The attraction’s designers also wanted to preserve the vibrant, Goreyesque visual style of the films — much of them set in Gru’s purple brick suburban home — and to build a sufficiently exciting ride that would satisfy kids and adults without making anybody puke.
To meet all those criteria, the ride’s designers settled on the idea of “minionization,” in which Gru, in an introductory video voiced by Carell, announces that he wants to train the park’s visitors to become minions. Meledandri’s team, including “Despicable Me” director Pierre Coffin, “The Minions” writer Brian Lynch and animator Chris Bailey, worked together with artists from Universal Creative, the group responsible for designing the company’s theme parks and rides.
“The idea of training you to become a minion felt like an opportunity to be active and immersive,” Meledandri said. “You yourself are becoming characters the audience loves.” Before founding Illumination, Meledandri produced the “Ice Age” movies for Twentieth Century Fox, which the studio is now turning into a theme park attraction in Malaysia.
The new minion attraction replaces another movie ride, the “Terminator"-themed T2 3-D: Battle Across Time, which opened at Universal’s Hollywood theme park in 1999. Though cutting-edge at the time of its installation, the ride had seen attendance dip, according to Jon Corfino, show producer and Universal Creative project director.
“They run through their natural cycles,” Corfino said of how the park decides when to replace a ride. (The Jurassic Park ride, which opened in 1996, is the park’s oldest.)
The minion ride is part of Universal’s $1.6-billion, 25-year expansion, including construction of a highly anticipated Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction.
Universal started planning the “Despicable Me” attraction not long after the release of the first film, and Universal Studios Orlando has already opened a smaller version of the ride.
“The energy of the minions was what was appealing,” said Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative. “One of the greater challenges was to take a 2-D medium and translate it into a 3-D practical environment that has to stand the test of time and weather and all the climatological things.”
The exterior of the new ride will be familiar to audiences of the “Despicable Me” films: The facade is a row of charming suburban houses, with Gru’s menacing purple home and dead lawn at the center. Beside Gru’s house is a cheery brick building, Miss Hattie’s Home for Girls, the orphanage where Gru’s daughters, Margo, Edith and Agnes used to live.
The idea of encouraging visitors to access their naughty, inner minions begins at the entrance — press a doorbell on one of the neighborhood homes and a programmed minion voice sounds. (All the minion voices in the ride are performed by Coffin, who also delivers many of them in the films).
Outside the home, a costumed Gru greets visitors. On an overcast morning in March, while the ride was in a soft opening phase known as tech rehearsals, children and adults stopped to pose for photos with Gru, arguably Hollywood’s most huggable supervillain.
Inside the ride, visitors pass props from the film such as Gru’s torpedo-like silver car and the minion weapon of choice, a fart gun. Thankfully, this version emits a banana scent.
Guests don minion goggles (3-D glasses) and climb into hydraulic seats to undergo their “minionization,” rolling through moderate swoops and climbs as a mini movie unspools.
Universal declined to comment on the budget of the attraction, but Meledandri said the cost of the mini movie compares, proportionally, to the cost of his films, the most recent of which was budgeted at $76 million.
The ride is more entertaining than scary: One of the obstacles is resisting the temptation of a 3-D banana floating before you. At the exit, guests are encouraged to dance their way out, against a screen with dancing minions.
The attraction also includes an arcade and outdoor play area called Super Silly Fun Land, based on a seaside carnival Gru and his daughters visit in “Despicable Me.” Stamped concrete floors approximate the appearance of the wooden boardwalk that appears in the film, one of the adaptations park designers made to realize the animated world of “Despicable Me” in the physical world of Los Angeles.
The audience for the attraction, like the films, is intended to be all ages, but the play areas at Super Silly Fun Land are meant to appeal to small children in particular, a group often underserved at theme parks full of scary rides with height requirements. A one-day pass to the park is $84, though Universal often makes deals available to Southern California residents.
There is also a cafe serving themed food, including Gru’s Backyard Barbecue Rotisserie Chicken and giant minion-shaped cupcakes and, inevitably, a store full of related merchandise: Super Silly Stuff. Bestsellers include a giant, plush unicorn of the kind Gru’s daughter Agnes totes in the film and a fart gun.
Inside the store, Eric Gil, 40, from Mexico City followed his 3-year-old daughter around as she hopefully toted one of the unicorns. A family of four on vacation from Shanghai purchased a minion hat and ate barbecue in the cafe. Their eldest son, Song-Gao Ye, 21, explained that the hat was for his girlfriend in China, where minions are “a girl thing.”
Three thirtysomething women visiting from Mexico City said they appreciated the ride’s moderate thrills.
“It’s just simply a nice, easy amusement,” said Stephanie Ensinger, 31. “You always remember being a kid.”
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