When one forecasts an idea without thinking about possible repercussions, he gets exactly what he deserves. Though it might have been contrary to the tone I was going for, I initially spoke highly of the Minions in the “Despicable Me” films as a way of finding silver linings in the clouds of mediocrity; never did it dawn on me, especially after the above proclamation, that a film about said ensemble would legitimately come to fruition, especially so soon after their most recent theatrical appearance. But while our youthful imaginations gravitate towards comic relief in feature cartoons because of how natural it all seems to worlds full of energy and color, could an idea like this have really amounted to something passable in a stand-alone fashion? These quirky, strange yellow underlings amuse us as consistently as Saturday morning cartoons, but never for much more. They occupy the screen with demeanors that suggest momentary distraction, reminding us how much quirk can go on in the peripheral of a whimsical animated adventure.
I reckon few filmmakers could have truly contradicted that perception in a feature-length film, and the ones who made “Minions” only confirm that prospect. Here is a movie that begins with one central idea, and exhausts it under the weight of a single repetitive joke that involves the minions, in some form or another, getting themselves into tricky predicaments while searching for a diabolical personality to serve in life. The early voice-overs suggest that their mission is one of evolutionary standards; at the bottom of the food chain, their only hope is to serve a master that will offer them protection in exchange for allegiance. Over the course of hundreds of years, we see that occur in abundance: at first with a T-Rex, later with Dracula, and later still with Napoleon, each of whom are either destroyed or undermined by the presence of those little enthusiastic critters who have no concept of when to stay out of things. For every ounce of enthusiasm, there is also clumsiness; at a certain point, it becomes apparent to the tribe that they must collectively align themselves with a much stronger antagonist, lest they lose sight of their purpose and fall into the boredom of the shadows.
That prospect rouses three of the minions to go in search of a villain worthy of their attention: Kevin, Bob and Stuart (how they were given these names is anyone’s guess; they speak a language known only to them). With Kevin serving as the leader of the expedition, they set off on foot to discover the location of a new master, and eventually find themselves on the shores of America, where they discover a convention for evil masterminds being held in Florida. An inevitable journey ensues that involves lots of awkward situations between the three minions and the human observers, but the end result is specific: they wind up acquiring the attention of a ruthless and cunning villain named Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock), who wants her prospective new servants to break into Buckingham Palace and steal the crown of Queen Elizabeth. The reason? She envisions herself as a precious commodity who should be showered in prestige and expensive garments, and for her, the crown represents the pinnacle of those desires. Needless to say, the undertaking gets convoluted once you throw such clumsy and unpredictable figures into the mix instead of handling the theft directly, a lesson that at least grumpy old Gru learned well before he hired the minions in the “Despicable Me” pictures.
The plot (if you can call it one) is a rough series of setups designed to propel a consistent running joke in which the minions find happiness in the camaraderie of an evil boss, flub one of their critical missions and then become stuck in their vengeful crosshairs, usually while Kevin deludes himself into thinking he is the tribe’s greatest savior and is destined to correct their misfortune. It is a cycle of repetitiveness that might have been better suited to five-minute shorts, but at a running length of 91 minutes, the endeavors become so utterly tiring that we grow irritated with the concept, and resentful of the point. To boot, few of the jokes are funny; it’s as if they are assembled from the discard pile of the earlier pictures, which at least benefitted from the notion that possibilities were a bit more varied when you focused on characters that had differing motives. Because there is only a single agenda on the plates of the minions, their endeavors are propelled by a conceit of baseline narrative assumptions, and little of it ever amounts to something worthy of a laugh.
Ironically, this comes as somewhat of a contradiction to what we understand about the characters. It is clear I was never much of a fan of either “Depicable” films, but I admired their inclusions; they were lightweight comic relief in stories that found humor through droll sensibilities, and were as amusing as they were bizarre for what they were. On base principles, a film strictly about them ought to have at least roused a few notable chuckles. But writer Brian Lynch, who is new to this specific franchise, has misinterpreted the necessity of quirk, and his story lumbers along so leisurely – and with such deadening enthusiasm – that we barely crack smiles, much less engage in uproarious chuckles. A scene involving an elaborate chase between a stagecoach and Queen Elizabeth’s bodyguards during an attempt to snatch the crown would be an ideal fit for zany antics for most storytellers in cartoons, but here it’s all show and no bite.
If there is any constructive feedback that the filmmakers of “Minions” can take with them, mine mirrors the sentiments of their predecessors: stop focusing so much on the color and nonsense, and remind yourselves of the whimsical possibilities of your chosen genre. In the hands of more perceptive voices, an idea like this might have amounted to something resonating (or at bare minimum, delightful or entertaining). It’s not as if such opportunities are entirely lost on our modern film artists, either. Think of films like “The Croods” or “Epic,” or something outlandish like “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.” An idea is only as good as its execution, and after spending three sessions with these characters, one is left with the speculation that some ideas, perhaps, would have been better left as part of a rough draft on the printed page.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Animated/Comedy (US); 2015; Rated PG; Running Time: 91 Minutes
Sandra Bullock: Scarlett Overkill
Jon Hamm: Herb Overkill
Michael Keaton: Walter Nelson
Allison Janney: Madge Nelson
Jennifer Saunders: The Queen
Geoffrey Rush: The Narrator
Produced by Janet Healy, Brett Hoffman, Christopher Meledandri, Chris Renaud and Dave Rosenbaum; Directed by Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin; Written by Brian Lynch