It’s okay to be leery of the fact that, after only two movies – one very fun, and one a lackluster product-mover – Universal declared Despicable Me‘s Minion characters to be their new Mickey Mouse. Already, they’re theme-park mascots to be plastered on all manner of merchandise that, following the screening of the new movie, I was promptly told by the person who shares my bedroom to buy “as much as we can get our hands on.”
Resist the commercial impulse if you like, and if you can. But don’t let it needlessly sour you on the fact that Minions, the new movie, is a gleefully anarchic and just plain fun cartoon that’s refreshing to enjoy in a world where Disney thinks it has to try and make you cry every time.
Making the Minions into lead characters was always a bit of a risk – they’ve been essentially interchangeable as characters thus far; they speak an Esperanto-ish hybrid language that splices French, Spanish, English and nonsense; and The Penguins of Madagascar proved that sometimes supporting characters in cartoons need to know their place. Still, it might have been even more of a risk to continue the Despicable Me series, having completely defanged its central character, Gru, from a naughty villain to a boringly balanced family man in love. Minions wisely pares the core yellow characters down to three, and gives them semblances of personality distinct from their group – Kevin takes some initiative, Stuart is reckless, Bob is sweet and childlike (all three, like every one of their species, are voiced by codirector Pierre Coffin). The dynamic is not unlike that of Gru’s three foster kids, but with less responsibility to be realistic or in any way overtly moral, since they’re (a) not human and (b) born to be naughty henchmen.
When we say Minions is a prequel – and one of the best movies to claim that dubious descriptor – we mean it, as the movie begins with the dawn of life on Earth, as seen in flat drawings given 3D depth layers. Single yellow cells follow predators up the food chain, beginning with amoebas and culminating in the full-on CG of a tyrannosaurus rex, by which time they too have evolved from sea creatures to the squished Homer-Simpson-meets-Pac-Man humanoid ovals we’re familiar with. Thus begins a tradition, through the ages, of the Minions seizing upon powerful bad guys to follow, only to screw up and accidentally kill said bad guy every time. Eventually, after being fired from Napoleon’s army, they retreat into an ice cave to begin their own civilization, conveniently (for marketing purposes) missing out on Hitler and Stalin (I presume the job of depicting Minions as concentration camp guards will be left to Robot Chicken and/or Fox ADHD).
If you’re a stickler for Despicable Me continuity, there’s probably a whole lot of retconning going on, but really, it’s no more egregious than the fact that the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote got different fake Latin species names each episode, or that the Three Stooges find themselves in different professions so frequently. This is classic slapstick stuff, which is rare to find in a modern movie without the accompaniment of excessive gross-outs (there is some drool, but not much). It’s best not to get into the fact that there seem to be no female Minions, and the only time they ever express romantic attraction is to yellow fire hydrants.
Emerging from the ice cave in the ’60s, Kevin, Stuart and Bob run amok in New York for a while before inadvertently discovering a secret TV channel that leads them to Villain-Con, which is like Comic-Con except…hmmm…no, it’s pretty much exactly like Comic-Con, full of devious, awful people who wish to subjugate all those with differing allegiances. Oh, and when a girl shows up everybody falls all over themselves to get her attention – Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock) is the world’s most powerful villain, and she’s looking for henchmen. By sheer fluke, and desperate love for his lost teddy bear, Bob manages to score the Minions the gig.
The trailers haven’t spoiled much beyond that, so I won’t either – suffice it to say that the rest of the movie takes place in England and involves the Crown Jewels and several British Invasion music cues. Jon Hamm does a particularly fine job here as Scarlett’s doofus mod husband Herb, while Jennifer Saunders is an effectively proactive Queen Elizabeth II.
Like the most classic of clowns – Laurel and Hardy, perhaps, or the aforementioned Stooges – the Minions retain a crucial element of childlike naivete even as they hit each other and desperately fawn over extremely bad people. The irony, of course, is that they never truly hurt anyone besides their role models and themselves (and they’re toon-level indestructible, so no harm done). Kids can relate to the mischief, and adults can remember when more cartoons were like this.
The story may be too disjointed for some, as it’s more a series of setpieces for the babbling bozos to charge through and destroy than it is any kind of structured narrative. The climax feels a bit weak as a result; ironically, by literally going big it feels more petty, and its use of the Disney standard “cry now because you think the hero might be dead” moment just doesn’t work in a movie that has no concept of pathos (though, to be fair, it is a classical literary trope, called the Scheintod or “false death,” that has existed since before the time of Christ). All in all, though, Minions is a step back in the right direction for a franchise that misfired the last time around by trying to go full-Pixar-sequel, proving that an animated identity of one’s own is essential.
In his classic Time Bandits, Terry Gilliam famously depicted a Punch-and-Judy loving Napoleon uttering the phrase, “That’s what I like! Little things, hitting each other!” Here, decades later, it has taken a French director to get to the heart of that theory once again – and there’s Napoleon himself onscreen to endorse.
P.S. Be sure to stay until the very, VERY end of the end credits.
Luke Y. Thompson has been writing professionally about movies and pop-culture since 1999, and has also been an actor in some extremely cheap culty and horror movies you will probably never hear much about (he is nonetheless mostly proud of them, as he met his wife on one). As editor of The Robot's Voice since 2012, he can take the blame for the majority of the site's content, all of which he creates because he loves you very, very much. (Although he loves nachos more. Sorry.)
Prior to TRV, Luke wrote for publications that include the New Times LA, Los Angeles CityBeat, E! Online, OC Weekly, Geekweek, GeekChicDaily, The L.A. Times, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Nerdist