It’s not a huge surprise that the Minions, those Twinkie-colored, pill-shaped henchmen from the “Despicable Me” franchise (that spans several movies, a half-dozen short films, videogames, and a 3D theme park attraction) would eventually wind up with a film all to themselves. They’re iconic, walking that fine line between cute and utterly obnoxious, and highly marketable. They were also the most interesting thing about the “Despicable Me” movies, with their mysterious origins and genderless ambiguity (they do have a proclivity to cross-dress). So while “Minions” should have been the ultimate animated lark, embracing its frivolousness as an asset and not a burden, it is instead a total drag, and an unfunny, shambling mess.
“Minions” begins with some clever narration from Geoffrey Rush about the history of the minions. Apparently they’ve been willing yellow nincompoops since the dawn of time, first as single-celled organisms and then as more complex beings. (Again: this does shed some light on their mysterious origins but their weird asexuality thankfully remains.) Their goal is life was simple enough: serve the nastiest, most evil motherfuckers around, whether that’s a Tyrannosaurus Rex or Dracula. Of course, since they’re such silly creatures, they end up accidentally killing or otherwise enraging their would-be masters. As the story begins, the minion race is on its last legs, so a trio of ambitious, foolhardy minions (Kevin, Bob and Stuart, not that this matters) set out to find a new evil genius to follow.
They first arrive in New York, but soon head to Orlando, where Villain-Con is held. They want to serve Scarlet Overkill (voiced, somewhat listlessly, by Sandra Bullock), a sexy, stylish villainess who plans to steal St. Edward’s Crown. (Jon Hamm plays her husband and arms manufacturer Herb, in a similarly halfhearted performance.) The minions aim to serve, but instead bumble through a series of misadventures including, but not limited to, a weird Sword in the Stone gag, a road trip with a family of armed bandits (one of whom is voiced by Michael Keaton) and way too many jokes about royal abdication for a movie marketed towards the pre-school set. None of it makes much sense, existing less as a narrative and more as a series of loosely interconnected skits that don’t have much relation to one another (the climax is particularly confusing). And by the end of the movie, the filmmakers (including French animator Pierre Coffin, who co-directed the film and voices the minions) have tied themselves into knots in order to fit “Minions” into the larger “Despicable Me” continuity.
The decision to set the movie in 1968 should have, at the very least, afforded it some interesting stylistic flourishes, but there isn’t much offered in the way of period specificity, beyond a Richard Nixon joke and a soundtrack full of expensively licensed pop songs. Oddly enough, the movie looks the best when it cuts back from the globetrotting main story arc and instead focuses on the minions who are still stuck in an icy cave, far away from the rest of the world. Seeing minions, normally so cheery and banana-crazy, listlessly kicking around a frozen tundra? Now that is subversive and funny.
A movie like this isn’t about plot, though, it’s about the titular characters, who have been everywhere (they even took over the Los Angeles Times masthead) and appeal to pretty much anyone under the age of 12. And therein lies the biggest problem of “Minions” – they don’t do anything with the characters. Part of this is that they were never meant to be the singular focus of a feature-length movie. They were designed as marginalia; little characters who could generate sight gags or other jokes while the rest of the action unfolded around them. They speak a bizarre hodgepodge of French, Italian, Spanish, Yiddish and god knows what else so even their intention and emotions are hard to read on their blank faces. Focusing the movie on them makes sense on a marketing level but on a narrative level it’s a disaster. And they should have known this by now. Large swaths of “Despicable Me 2” were devoted to them and that movie barely hung together (that film had the good sense to change them, at least, into evil purple gremlins).
It’s a shame, too. The “Despicable Me” movies were never mistaken for great entertainment or artistic triumphs; they were low-budget confections that appealed to the masses. But there was a certain amount of whimsical, throwaway charm to them, like a poorly animated Saturday morning cartoon from your childhood that you love, even today, despite having a hard time remembering exactly what it was all about. The franchise has an incredibly distinct feeling, full of impishness and joy that is hard to deny. But “Minions” is, in sharp contrast, totally mirthless. It’s often downright mean-spirited and has moments of surprising violence. The marketing engine of “Minions” is undeniably powerful. This is something craftily designed to sell toys and theme park tickets and special cans of Tic-tacs. But it’s not a movie. It’s an eyesore. [D]