Clad in blue overalls with thick goggles over their eye(s), preoccupied with bananas and spouting gibberish, the small yellow creatures known as Minions have scuttled their way into the collective popular culture consciousness. In this prequel/spin-off to the Despicable Me movies, we discover the origins of the Minions, who have been on earth since the dawn of time, drawn to evil masters whom they loyally but often ineffectively serve. It is 1968 and after a long period of unemployment, Kevin, Stuart and Bob set out to seek a new villainous employer for their clan. The stylish, dastardly Scarlet Overkill (Bullock) seems to be just the new boss the Minions seek. Her husband, inventor Herb (Hamm), outfits Kevin, Stuart and Bob with nifty gadgets and they are tasked to steal the Queen’s crown from the Tower of London for Scarlet, who dreams of ruling over the British Empire. Naturally, things go awry for our tiny yellow protagonists. Uh oh.
It is very easy to be cynical about the existence of this spin-off film. A “minion” serves an evil overlord, who in the context of the Despicable Me series, is Steve Carell’s Gru. Here, the Minions, side characters by design, are given their own show to carry. There is an industry term for something with kid-targeted merchandising potential – “toyetic”. The Minions are as toyetic as they come, designed to be slapped on everything and anything that exasperated parents can fork over the cash for, with a new wave of Minion mania set to strike with the release of this movie. When McDonalds offered Minion Happy Meal toys here in Singapore, lines snaked around the block, rivalling those for Hello Kitty merchandise. It was a goofy, likeable idea to start with, but now it can’t help but feel all market tested and focus grouped out. A story focusing solely on the Minions would have worked fine as a short film or as a theme park attraction – actually, those already exist, but that doesn’t diminish the shiny, lucrative appeal of a feature-length summer release.
That’s essentially a roundabout way of saying that Minions has no real need to exist, which sounds like a very curmudgeon-y statement indeed now that we’ve read it out loud. For what it is, the film is harmless, often quite amusing and very competently animated. Pierre Coffin co-directed both Despicable Me films and Kyle Balda helmed three Minion-centric short films included on the Despicable Me home release. Coffin and Chris Renaud, co-director of the Despicable Me movies, voice all the Minions themselves. There are several eye-catching sequences and plenty of fun period details for the parents in the audience to grab onto – Kevin, Stuart and Bob walking beneath a giant Nixon campaign poster is a delightfully surreal image. There are perhaps one too many pop culture references – for example, the Minions bumble into the Beatle’s famous Abbey Road crossing. The expected slapstick is not in short supply, but this reviewer’s favourite gag, featuring time-travelling mad scientist Dr. Flux, didn’t involve the Minions at all.
It was assumed that the Minions were the genetically-engineered creations of Gru – the short film “Orientation Day” follows a bunch of freshly-cloned Minions around Gru’s lab. The Minions’ new back-story raises very many questions. Is this one tribe the only group of Minions in existence? What implications are there in these creatures’ nature to be drawn to only the most unsavoury beings currently alive? Would they have leapt at the chance to serve, say, Adolf Hitler? It makes sense if their lives have no meaning apart from indentured servitude if they were grown that way in a lab, but these creatures are naturally occurring. We’re definitely expending too much thought on it, but these notions did prove very distracting throughout the film’s duration.
Sandra Bullock is the marquee-name star chosen to headline the film as Scarlet Overkill, the super-villainess kitted out in an array of dresses that also serve as booster rockets and who’s out to prove being a flashy career criminal isn’t just a guy’s game. She’s fine, but nowhere near as charismatic and entertaining as Steve Carell before her, and it is evident that she’s not a seasoned voice actress. Playing Scarlet’s laconic husband, Jon Hamm puts more effort into transforming his voice, but it’s not an especially memorable performance. Michael Keaton and Allison Janney voice a couple who let Kevin, Stuart and Bob hitch a car ride to the villain convention; it’s little more than a cameo.
It’s an animated film containing popular, easily-marketable critters and it’s being released during the summer holidays, so of course Minions is going to do well at the box office. It’s mostly pleasant enough, sometimes annoying but never outright cringe-inducing and it moves along at a decent clip. Because of the inherent simplicity of the Minions as characters and the fact that they have to carry this movie on their little yellow shoulders, this lacks the crucial emotional backbone present in the first Despicable Me film. Kevin, Stuart and Bob may be designed to be analogues for Margo, Edith and Agnes, but they just can’t replace the heart that the three girls and their emotional connection to their adoptive dad bring to the franchise.
Summary: Yes, the tykes will love it and the accompanying adults might find some tidbits hidden in the 60s setting, but Minions can’t transcend its function as a cash grab vehicle.
RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars