Four stars. Rated PG, and needlessly, for cartoon action and brief rude humor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.10.15
Thrusting supporting players into their own starring vehicle rarely succeeds.
Rarely ... but not never. In five short years, the Twinkie-hued, overalled lab subordinates in Despicable Me have gone from screwball second bananas to a genuine world-wide phenomenon ... and they more than hold their own, in the absolutely delightful Minions.
|Having won a coveted spot as Scarlet Overkill's new henchbeings, our Minion heroes —|
from left, Stuart, Bob and Kevin — eagerly await their first dastardly mission. Sadly,
they've no idea how shallow their new employer's loyalty is destined to be.
But their success remains an anomaly.
Although a more frequent phenomenon on television — where we (briefly) suffered through, among many others, Beverly Hills Buntz (from Hill Street Blues) and Joey (Friends) — the big screen has seen its share of sidekick disasters.
The reason is obvious, although it seems to elude studio execs. A successful ensemble character dynamic is as fragile as a soufflé: Each element is essential, creating a whole that is, to everybody’s delight, greater than the sum of its talented parts. You simply can’t remove one of those pieces, toss it into an under-written spin-off, and expect good results.
Steve Carell’s Evan Baxter was hilarious, supporting Jim Carrey, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Aniston and Nora Dunn in Bruce Almighty. On his own, in the follow-up Evan Almighty ... not so much. Dwayne Johnson’s Scorpion King may have set up the action in The Mummy Returns, but he couldn’t manage the heavy lifting in his own film, a year later.
Jennifer Garner’s Elektra was the best part of the otherwise awful Daredevil — notwithstanding Colin Farrell’s maniacal villain — but no amount of fancy swordplay could have helped her starring vehicle, two years later. And let’s just try to pretend that Halle Berry’s toothless turn as Catwoman never happened.
(This phenomenon is far from recent. Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne’s Charters and Caldicott, the cricket-loving supporting players in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 classic, The Lady Vanishes, wound up in their own feature three years later. Nobody remembers Crook’s Tour today ... which is probably just as well.)
Why, then, have the Minions broken the curse?
It always comes down to the same basic element: the script. In this case, Brian Lynch — who had a hand in 2011’s droll Puss in Boots (another rare spin-off success) — has delivered a story that’s both clever and witty, granting these well-intentioned but disaster-prone subordinates both an origin story and their first chaotic adventure within the ranks of would-be super-villains.
Lynch doesn’t miss a trick. The results are cute, hilarious and wisely episodic: mini-escapades shrewdly stitched together in a manner that feels like a long single storyline. Co-directors Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda keep things moving at a lively clip, with editor Claire Dodgson also ensuring that this 91-minute film doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Everything is assembled with great care and obvious love; even the soundtrack is terrific, making perfect use of pop classics such as “Happy Together,” “You Really Got Me” and — of course — “Mellow Yellow.” On top of which, fans who’ve turned the YouTube video of the Minions’ “Banana Song” into a multi-million-view sensation will fall over laughing here, when they similarly butcher “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and the theme to TV’s “The Monkees.”
Since the Minions’ raison d’être is to serve the ultimate evil overlord — as explained by narrator Geoffrey Rush, who frequently inserts droll commentary — Lynch’s saga takes us back to the dawn of time, and the single-celled yellow organisms that eventually evolve and emerge from the ocean. Initial imprintings on the likes of Tyrannosaurus rex and brutish Homo sapiens prove disastrous, as do later efforts — Minions apparently being immortal — with Dracula and Napoleon.
Unable to find a master who can survive their peculiar brand of intense devotion, the disillusioned Minions build their own civilization deep in an Antarctic cave. But acolytes cannot survive on their own, and despair threatens to overwhelm them. Enter the enterprising Kevin, a big-brother type who decides to return to the outside world, in order to find a suitably malevolent boss and once again grant them purpose.
Kevin is joined by the adolescent, rebellious Stuart, whose musical sensibilities will be right at home when they land in late 1960s New York; and eager-beaver “little brother” Bob, an adorable, childlike soul who immediately bonds with an equally tiny teddy bear.
Needless to say, their fish-out-of-water presence during these groovy times is ripe for cultural parody. (Was anything more ridiculous than late 1960s squares trying to be hip?)
Subsequent adventures take them to Orlando, site of Villain-Con (a delightful riff on San Diego’s Comic-Con); and mod, merry ol’ London, with its rather earthy Queen Elizabeth (marvelously voiced by Jennifer Saunders). By this point, our flaxen-hued trio has bonded with Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), the world’s first female super-villain, who is determined to prove that gals can be just as bad as the boys.
First, though, she must work out some childhood angst by obtaining the crown jewels from the Tower of London ... and most particularly the crown itself, so that she can become the Queen of England. This act of theft, in turn, becomes the first mission assigned to her new Minion henchmen.
Needless to say, things don’t go down quite as planned...
Although this premise is laden with comedic opportunity, the funniest element — as always has been the case, with the Minions — is the way they react to stuff ... and, mostly particularly, the way they discuss matters. Their scattershot language never ceases to delight, their vernacular always sounding just familiar enough to make sense.
Credit Coffin, who has both voiced the Minions from day one — all of them — and also has invented their ever-expanding etymology. Occasionally recognized words aren’t accidental; this lexicon is a blend of Spanish, French, Indonesian and, yes, English ... which makes sense, for creatures who’ve served different masters throughout the world.
“And when I get stuck,” Coffin admits, in the film’s press notes, “I have my Indian or Chinese menu handy.”
As he further explains, his goal is for us viewers to understand the intention of — and verbal melodies behind — what the Minions say, as opposed to recognizing the actual verbiage that comprises their speech.
Whatever. It’s brilliant.
So’s the voice talent, with all sorts of familiar folks popping up in supporting roles. Michael Keaton and Allison Janney are a stitch as the oddly nerdy Walter and Madge Nelson, who give the Minions a much-needed lift to Florida. Steve Coogan handles both an ancient London Tower guard and Villain-Con’s time-traveling Professor Flux; Jon Hamm is a hoot as Scarlet’s moddishly swanky, mad-scientist inventor husband, Herb.
And, yes, a certain somebody pops up as the saga’s whacked-out climax concludes, bringing events, if not full circle, then close to.
Our three primary Minions make excellent protagonists, with the paternal Kevin forever doing his best to protect his more impetuous and less careful companions. Stuart is the deliberate troublemaker, while Bob simply gets overwhelmed by everything ... and sees nothing wrong with (for example) befriending a sewer rat.
The story’s one slightly weak link is Scarlet, although the fault doesn’t lie with Bullock, who alternately snarls and cajoles, as necessary, with total assurance. But the character herself lacks conviction; Scarlet too frequently sounds like a petulant wannabe trying to persuade the world that she is too a bad, bad girl. As a result, she’s nowhere near the menace this story wishes her to be.
Frankly, husband Herb is more persuasively malevolent, particularly when he gets Kevin, Stuart and Bob into the Tower of London’s torture chamber (with mixed results).
That’s a very minor issue, though, which certainly doesn’t interfere with the film’s many mirthful delights. Minions is a hoot ’n’ a holler, and as long as Coffin signs on for 2017’s Despicable Me 3 — which appears to be the case — then our blue-denimed, capsule-shaped buddies are apt to remain a cultural presence for years to come.