Silver Screen: Minions **
It’s a little infuriating to get a kick out of the Minions, the yellow, pill-shaped sidekick creatures that gave a comic boost to Despicable Me and its improbably superior sequel. The Minions are legion, nearly identical, and effectively mute. They march through the margins of the Despicable Me movies, interjecting clever bits of slapstick like the tiny Sergio Aragonés cartoon creations that lived in between the panels of Mad magazine.
The Aragonés comparison is favorable, but there are less-flattering connections to be made. The Minions reek of marketeering. They seem to come from the same island of generically likeable corporate spokescritters as kid-friendly 1980s hucksters like the Dominos Noid and the bafflingly ubiquitous California Raisins. The Minions are so bright and enthusiastic and unassuming as to be perfect for hawking... well, just about anything.
Indeed, a Bloomberg.com writeup claims that Minions was serviced by $593 million in advertisements and promotions. The same article quotes the CEO of a film marketing company gushing about “yellow Minions Tic Tacs, Twinkies, iPhone cases” and a half-billion Chiquita bananas bearing Minions stickers. (And wouldn’t you know it, the movie happens to feature a scene where one starving Minion hallucinates that his pal is a banana and tries to eat him.)
It’s probably no surprise, then, that the Minions spinoff movie is aimless and unnecessary. It’s not a movie inspired by a great idea but rather an opportunity reverse-engineered for maximum efficiency. It has a story that wouldn’t fill the first half of a Little Golden Book, and to distract the audience from the lack of any forward progress— and also to lazily compensate for the dearth of dialogue— director Pierre Coffin bombards the crowd with an intrusive soundtrack of played-out classic rock hits.
The Minions speak their own language, which on first listen sounds like gibberish but which actually contains bits of English, Spanish, French, and Hebrew. Plus some gibberish. Their history is described in a voiceover provided by Geoffrey Rush, who explains that the little creatures exist only to serve an evil master. An energetic prologue shows how throughout the decades they foiled their employers’ schemes with Gilliganesque inefficiency.
Their haplessness has led the Minions to isolation. With no evil plots to assist in, they grow depressed. To snap his people (?) out of their malaise, Minion Kevin enlists the help of the innocent Bob and ukulele-wielding Stuart to travel to a supervillain convention to woo the nefarious Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock), who, along with her layabout husband Herb (Jon Hamm), is plotting a takeover of England circa 1968.
Just about where the story should start going somewhere, it turns circles and lays down. The Minions pester Scarlett in a continuing if not exactly escalating series of well-intentioned blunders. This repeats until the movie somewhat arbitrarily decides to end.
None of the new characters are even slightly memorable. Scarlett’s most noteworthy trait is a wardrobe of dresses studded with hidden weapons, but the character never lives up to her own hype (or makes a remotely funny joke), and Bullock is miscast as a miscreant. Hamm, on the other hand, is hilarious as the voice of Herb, but the character is limited by his own narrow slacker persona.
All the comedy to be had here must come via the Minions. And, much as I hate to admit it, they do inspire some big laughs. Although director Coffin too rarely takes advantage of the possibilities, their unintelligibility is their greatest asset. Because the scenes are wordless, the Minions are forced to emote by expression and gesture, which the animators convey with occasional élan. The best moments of the movie can be reduced to a series of short, manic sketches that play like fantastic extras on a Despicable Me special-edition DVD— which is probably what the Minions movie probably should have been in the first place.
But the Minions’ likeability is also confounding. It means the marketing spell is working. When the jokes hit, that’s when you’re softened up for a banana commercial. That funny nonsense babble you downloaded as a ringtone was almost certainly developed with that in mind.
The most manipulative commercials cajole you into enjoying your own manipulation. Those 3D glasses you pop on might as well be the antithesis of the shades Rowdy Roddy Piper dons to see the truth in They Live. The Minions are coming right out of the screen. Better keep your hand on your wallet.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.