The ‘Despicable Me’ franchise might not have been perfect, but it produced some animated icons in the bumbling Minions. Sporting a simple design and sputtering out cute gibberish, the Minions were perfectly calculated to tickle children and sell plush toys, and dammit they deserved the attention. It should come as no surprise that the Minions now have their own movie. It should also come as no surprise that their spin-off is charmingly mediocre.
So seeing as how the Minions don’t really speak in any form of recognizable language, the movie kicks off with voiceover as the authoritative voice of Geoffrey Rush recounts the history of the species. Apparently, the ageless, sexless creatures were formed to support ultimate figures of evil, and did so throughout history from dinosaurs to cavemen to Dracula and even Napoleon before getting lost in the arctic for an untold number of years. Bored and depressed without a master to serve, three Minions head out on a journey to find their race a new evil boss. Thankfully, they do so in 1968 so that all sorts of classic rock songs can fill the soundtrack and other Baby Boomer favorites can cover the required pop culture joke quotient.
Eventually, the Minions learn of a secret convention of villains to be headlined by the beehive hair-sporting Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock). They hook up with a nuclear family of bank robbers (led by Michael Keaton and Allison Janney in one of the movie’s funniest sequences) and drive across America to meet with Scarlett. This leads to a trip to England to steal the Queen’s crown, because why not? Don’t expect much plot, people. This is pretty much a sketch comedy movie.
At its best, ‘Minions’ is admittedly quite charming and funny. It’s not easy to do almost purely silent comedy, but when it works the results are about as pure as entertainment gets (think ‘Mr. Bean’ or the ‘Road Runner’ cartoons). There are times when ‘Minions’ hits that mark beautifully and other times when the movie is just annoying. Essentially, it has the hit-to-miss ratio of a decent ‘Saturday Night Live’ episode, only aimed at kids.
Clearly, figuring out how to give these sidekick characters an entire feature length movie of their own was no easy task, so what emerged was an episodic script compiled from all the best bits a team of writers could dream up. (Officially, the script is credited only to Bryan Lynch, but the ramshackle structure and grab-bag joke writing makes it pretty clear that at least a few other punch-up artists were involved, if not several teams of them.) In a way, the movie feels like two episodes of a proposed “Minions through Time” TV series, followed by a two-part 1960s season finale. While it’s nice that all the unnecessary family values moralizing of the ‘Despicable Me’ franchise no longer drags down the laugh rate, it’s also clear that providing some sort of emotional content helped make those movies at least feel like actual feature films rather than an overgrown series of shorts.
Still, while it’s easy to complain about ‘Minions’ being completely empty fluff, there is some fluffy fun within the emptiness. In particular, the Minions history lesson prologue works well, as do the vocal performances of Michael Keaton’s hyper enthusiastic super-dad and John Hamm’s hysterically prim sidekick to Bullock’s super villainess. When ‘Minions’ hits its high notes, it has shades of the imaginatively anarchistic spirit of old Hollywood animators like Tex Avery or Chuck Jones. There’s a wild, surreally rambunctious, and even mildly edgy (for a kids’ movie) sense of humor at the core of this thing that’s nice to see in mainstream Hollywood animation again, when most CGI family features released these days are either Pixar or ‘Shrek’ clones.
Unfortunately, in aiming for that style of comedy, the filmmakers pretty much guaranteed that ‘Minions’ would be a mediocre endeavor. The surreal silly humor is difficult to sustain at 90 minutes, and exhaustion will set in for all but the most hyper-caffeinated and/or youngest viewers long before the credits roll. This would probably make for a fantastic Saturday morning cartoon series, but not a feature film. Yet because feature films are where the money’s at, we’re stuck with this. It’s painless animated entertainment, sure, but nothing that will stick out in anyone’s memory even a few minutes after leaving the theater.