Dirs. Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin
Starring Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton
YOUNG FUN WITH THE YELLOW PHENOMENON…
Those of you who have not been living in a dark, soundproof hole with no internet connection might have cottoned on to the fact that the Minions have become rather popular over the past few years.
Despicable Me was a fine, functional, family film about a bad guy learning to take responsibility – classic stuff. However, it was the cute unintelligible yellow guys, speaking in a weird bastardisation of every romance language ever and getting themselves into all sorts of adorable kerfuffles, that truly left the following cultural impact crater. If the studio/marketing department weren’t aware of this before, they certainly caught on quickly. The Minions dominated all forms of post-release marketing – from the DVD cover (embossed with an enormous Minion), to those ubiquitous cinema adverts promoting whatever promotion was available in that particular cinema (played before literally every film ever), to the merchandising (Oh Dear Lord, the merchandising) to the entire second film (not just their omnipresence in the marketing – they also fulfil a rather large narrative role). It doesn’t help that the internet did half their work for them: the Minions are, after all, basically walking memes. They’re the Reddit post of fictional characters – short, not particularly deep or insightful, at times incomprehensible, and designed to be cute and quirky and ‘random’ and to just generally deliver the maximum amount of impact with minimal effort to a generation with a deficit in attention span (and I say this as someone who is totally and undeniably guilty of this just as much as anyone else). The confluence of all these factors would be, naturally, a standalone movie. And yet I really didn’t see it coming – simply because I didn’t see the Minions as characters in and of themselves, capable of supporting a full story. Perhaps that wasn’t fair – after all, if WALL-E can captivate audiences, why not the Minions?
Minions chronicles the titular characters as they search for someone (a bad guy) to serve – a quest they are apparently evolutionarily predisposed to carry out, no matter how many catastrophes they bumble into (catastrophes to which their masters fall victim more often than not – it’s actually pretty surprising how much death a family film can get away with). This opening montage, depicting their ‘evolution’ from their humble, unicellular origins to a brief stint in Napoleon’s army (narrated by the pleasantly-voiced Geoffrey Rush) is one example of where the film shines brightest; the Minions are perfectly tailored for slapstick comedy, what with their oddball personalities and plush and cuddly physicality, and the sequence is just the right length to avoid fatigue or oversaturation. But then, of course, the rest of the film happens.
After the charming first act, the Minions are left despondent and despairing due to their lack of employability in the criminal underworld. It is at this point that three of their number, named Kevin, Stuart and Bob, decide to venture out into the wide world to find a new master. They hitch a lift with a pleasant, middle-class American family on their way to ‘Villain Con’ (robbing a few convenience stores on the way), which is, as the name suggests, a convention for villains. It is there that they meet Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), the biggest, baddest, meanest, most evil, dastardly, conniving – you get the idea. Point is, she’s perfect for them, and they proceed to become her indentured servants (there’s definitely an argument here for how troubling it is that the Minions are essentially a slave race, akin to the house-elves in Harry Potter, but hey, that’s kind of why the ridiculousness works).
Bullock kills it as Overkill (sigh), imbuing every line with this great manic energy and seductive glee, rendering everything and everyone else on-screen subservient to her awesome presence – except for maybe Jon Hamm’s Herb, Scarlet’s relaxed and easy-going husband, which is always a fun character archetype to have (think the turtle from Finding Nemo). They’re used tactfully as well, never really overstaying their welcome (which is a bit of a shame for Bullock, because she’s clearly having a ton of fun)…which is more than I can say for the three Minions who helm the story.
Okay, they’re not that bad. The problem is, as I mentioned earlier, they simply aren’t enough to support a full story. They work as hilarious cutaway gags and vehicles for slapstick humour (and the physical comedy in this movie works pretty darn well), but as characters? They don’t really have fleshed out personalities and identities so much as a collection of quirks, with maybe the occasional shade of depth. This might work if the creative team went for a more peripatetic, episodic story – or even just a series of internet shorts or a TV show or something in that vein – but instead they adopted a more traditional story structure, with all the familiar beats of a quest narrative and some semblance of an arc awkwardly squeezed into the final act (not sure what that arc was – them learning to work together? Don’t work for an evil madman? It’s not overly clear), a tactic which doesn’t really work for non-traditional characters. The plot comes across as half-baked and thin, like butter scraped over too much bread (yes, that was a jab at the Hobbit films), and the Minions themselves come across as saccharine and grating; they’re the fictional equivalent of putting seven sugars in your coffee. It’s the result of greenlighting and producing a movie based on the ‘cuteness’ of a certain character – it’s not enough to support an entire film.
However, on the other hand, I’m not exactly the target audience. The screening in which I saw this was packed with young children, which made for an excellent barometer for how well the film connected with its intended audience. The result: every joke that went over my head hit those kids like lightning bolts to the brain (as, I’m willing to bet, the Minions as characters were meticulously designed to do… it’s almost diabolical). Their overwhelmingly positive reaction was a kind of joy in and of itself, and it allowed me to realise that while the film didn’t really work for me, it might not really belong to me. That’s not to say that it’s an underrated masterpiece or anything – there have been plenty of films ostensibly for children, that are accessible to a whole gamut of audiences (e.g Paddington, The Lego Movie, everything by Pixar) and in truth, kids are far more open to intelligent, nuanced cinema than we give them credit for. And yet, at the same time, it’s not really my right to walk in as the grumpy grown-up, claiming superiority over all the silly kids who have the gall to like a movie that I don’t think works. It’s their movie – maybe we should leave it up to them. Though maybe we shouldn’t, and sod the giggling little bastards. Let’s vote on that one later.
In the end, like its characters, Minions is likeable, harmless, doesn’t have a huge amount to say and is good with kids. Perhaps not worth a single adult ticket, but fun for all the family.