Like the Penguins of Madagascar and Mater the tow truck, the Tic Tac-shaped, banana-colored Minions join the ranks of popular comic sidekicks who have taken over their animated franchises. This is usually a sign of the end, although Cars 3 is on the way, and nobody has said Madagascar 4 isn’t happening.
The thing is, there’s a reason comic sidekicks were sidekicks to start with, just as there’s a reason Minions are always Minions of someone, be it Pharaoh, Count Dracula or Napoleon Bonaparte; it’s the way they’re made. A tasty side dish doesn’t necessarily make a satisfying main course. Scrat the saber-tooth squirrel might be consistently the funniest thing in the Ice Age universe, but does anyone want to watch him for 90 minutes?
As comic sidekicks go, the Minions at their best are funnier and more charming than Mater; they are also more versatile than Scrat. The Penguins are wackier and have a better schtick, but on the flip side their glibly verbose style is quicker to become grating. The Minions, who barely say anything comprehensible, are so cheerfully inoffensive, so wide-eyed — in fact, goggle-eyed — and eager to entertain that their antic mugging remains agreeable for prolonged periods.
Is that enough? It depends. If you ask no more of an animated franchise film than passable diversion for the youngest members of the target audience, mission accomplished. If you want something that will stand up to repeated viewings on home video and not try the patience of parents and clever, thoughtful children … well, if you’ve already seen Inside Out, you may want to hold out for Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep Movie, opening in August.
The thing is, Minions seems to want to appeal to older viewers. In addition to risqué sight gags like Stuart in a thong, there are period jokes tied to the late-1960s setting, with references to Richard Nixon and Andy Warhol, The Dating Game and Abbey Road. I was born in the late 1960s, and I think some of the period gags went over my head.
But the movie doesn’t trust the audience to get the jokes. The Minions, with their largely nonsensical jabber, are a bit like silent-era comedians — not unlike Shaun the Sheep and his co-stars. (The Minions’ dialogue, such as it is, is supplied as always by co-director Pierre Coffin, who also co-directed the Despicable Me films.) The filmmakers are conscious of this silent heritage, judging by how they borrow from Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and Modern Times.
Yet in the opening act, before there are talking humans on the screen, the Minions’ shenanigans are supplemented by largely unnecessary voice-over (supplied by Geoffrey Rush). Okay, Chaplin did the same thing in the 1942 talkie re-edit of Gold Rush, but a) many silent-film fans consider that a terrible idea, and b) at least Chaplin’s detached, documentary-style narration adds new levels of humor to particular sequences.
Rush’s narration, by contrast, often winds up explaining gags that already worked visually, detracting rather than adding. (“Truth be told, Stuart had no idea what he had been chosen for.”) Kids don’t need to be condescended to this way; they can follow purely visual storytelling with no dialogue or narration, if it’s done well. When Shawn the Sheep opens, you’ll see what I mean.
The Minions also riff on Donald O’Connor’s “Make ’em Laugh” showstopper from Singin’ in the Rain — yet, bizarrely, it’s only a musical number, with no slapstick acrobatics. What? You have antic animated characters paying homage to one of the most celebrated antic sequences in film history and there are no antics? It’s like nobody thought about the sequence at all, beyond “Let’s reference ‘Make ’em Laugh’; that’ll get a chuckle from the grown-ups.”
The opening act, in which the Minions evolve from tiny, yellow, one-celled microorganisms, following the biggest, baddest microorganism in the vicinity into a viable if listless Minion civilization, shows promise. The title sequence, depicting the Minions’ evolutionary prehistory, is done in flat animation (or flattish, if you see it in 3-D) and visuals inspired by cave painting and ancient Egyptian painting (later on, there’s a stop-motion-inspired sequence).
“But something was missing,” Rush tells us. That something is a big, bad boss, whom the Minions are genetically hardwired to seek out and serve. So three Minions — Kevin, Stuart and Bob — set out in 1968 to find a new boss for the Minions to follow. After a stopover in Manhattan, they set out to network with evildoers at a clandestine Orlando trade show called Villain-Con.
The belle of this ball is a femme not-so-fatale who goes by Scarlet Overkill. Scarlet is voiced by Sandra Bullock, who is so implicitly girl-next-door that you never really believe Scarlet is anywhere near as despicable as Steve Carell’s Gru. In her Mary Tyler Moore bob and ruby cocktail dress, she’s like a 1960s TV mom’s glamorous, mildly evil twin. Minions has no interest in exploring possible dark sides of a 1960s housewife, the way Despicable Me cast Gru in the role of a neighborhood grouch. And, unlike Gru, she has no character arc, because it’s not her story. (Scarlett’s husband, Herb Overkill, who is nothing like a 1960s TV dad, is voiced by Jon Hamm, perhaps because Mad Men was also set in the 1960s.)
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Scarlet’s big plan takes us to London. Although this is more of a spoiler, for me it’s where the movie goes south, and I can’t dance around the point, so here goes: The London caper leads to a loopy detour in which Bob encounters the sword in the stone — yes, that sword in the stone, though what it’s doing back in the stone I have no idea — and pulls it out, heralded by doves and choirboys.
Think about that a moment. The filmmakers apparently didn’t, so somebody should. I guess I can roll with a franchise so far defined by cartoony sci-fi and caper-movie logic taking a left turn into Arthurian legend, with its blend of sorcery and Christianity. (After all, I bought the Dracula cameo.)
But this also means Bob has been divinely chosen as king of England — a fact that everyone, including an eye-rolling Queen Elizabeth, accepts without argument. The movie even makes a point of noting the role of the archbishop of Canterbury in crowning (or “coronating,” as someone incorrectly says) a new monarch. (“You are so squishy!” Scarlet gushes over the primate of the Church of England, squeezing his cheeks. I’d love to believe that was an intentional theological joke.)
I’m a fan of silliness and nonsense, and Minions are about as silly and nonsensical as kiddie entertainment gets. But everyone has limits.
In my book, if Bob is divinely chosen as king of England, that should mean something. Of course it doesn’t. The crown gets passed from one character to another, and it’s not much of a spoiler to say that in the end all is as it should be again. Here is where clever children may have a problem: The Minions are cheered and celebrated as heroes of the realm for helping to resolve a crisis that they themselves caused. They should be lucky not to be clapped into the Tower of London.
And then, again, we’re told “something was still missing.” The Minions still want to serve some big, bad boss, and this is a problem in two ways. Because Minions is a prequel to Despicable Me, it can’t have the redemptive arc of that film, which most animated family films, including this one, want to have. But it’s also a problem for the Despicable Me films, since Gru reforms by the end of the first film, yet in Despicable Me 2 the Minions are still hanging around. Have they not figured out that he has gone straight? Or will they eventually decide that “something is missing” again?
Caveat Spectator: Much cartoon slapstick violence and mild menace; some rude humor and mildly risqué sight gags. Okay family viewing.