IT’S STRANGE to think that Despicable Me came out only five years ago, because its impact on pop culture in that time has been amazing. It’s second only to Frozen for most marketable animated film of recent years, and that’s almost entirely attributable to the Minions. I shouldn’t need to explain the Minions because the little yellow fuckers are EVERYWHERE. For most of these past five years I wasn’t digging them – they rely on a very straightforward comedy staple that cute, clumsy, high-pitched simpletons who speak gibberish will attract kids and annoy their parents. They’re hardly different from the aliens in Toy Story, or even the Teletubbies.
Despicable Me and its sequel had their charms, but it was the human characters Gru and his adopted daughters who won me over. The Minions felt like they were there to pander to the kids and score easy laughs. When I heard they were going to star in their own spin-off, I wanted to avoid it like the plague. As it happens, a combination of promising trailers, strong reviews from American critics and a girlfriend obsessed with the Minions led me to give it a chance.
Guys, I loved this movie. I liked it more than either Despicable Me film. I laughed to the point of delirium.
The film is a loose prequel to the Despicable Me films, revealing the origin of these peculiar little beasts: Their species reached its evolutionary apex millions of years ago (take that, Dawkins!) and have, since time immemorial, roamed the earth in a single nomadic tribe serving the most evil master they can find. In a clever montage mostly spoiled by the trailer, the Minions fail to keep any of their masters alive, if not directly killing them, and after failing Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo they go into hiding for decades.
After conveniently sitting out the World Wars (wouldn’t goose-stepping Minions be hilarious?) the Minions start to crave a purpose they’ve missed for generations of apparent immortality. Three Minions – Kevin, Stuart and Bob (all voiced by co-director Pierre Coffin) – set out on a mission to find the Minions a long-overdue new master. Eldest brother Kevin is smart, careful and paternal. Middle sibling Stuart is laid-back, rebellious and a wannabe rock star. Youngest brother Bob is cute, enthusiastic and clumsy.
Yes, this is the same group dynamic as Alvin and the Chipmunks. Their personalities blend with consistently humorous effect, with almost no dialogue required. Kevin is purpose-driven while Stuart is lazy and Bob is easily distracted, so the slapstick writes itself. Even the running gag of the Minions’ obsession with bananas (because “banana” is just an inherently funny word) manages a couple of interesting variations. The core Minion trio score laugh after laugh, especially the adorable Bob.
The Minions eventually find the most diabolical villain in the world: Scarlet Overkill, voiced by Sandra Bullock, in her first animated role since The Prince of Egypt. Scarlett falls short of being an original villainess but her cliché personality and simple world domination goals keep things moving well enough. Bullock invests enough humour and energy into the character to keep her from being as dull as she would be in lesser hands.
Rounding out the supporting cast are Jon Hamm as Scarlet’s husband Herb; Michael Keaton and Alison Janney as the white-bread bank robbers Walter and Madge Nelson; Geoffrey Rush as the narrator and the hilariously miscast Jennifer Saunders as Queen Elizabeth II. None of these characters have all that much screentime and are overshadowed by the Minions, but they all give lively and funny performances.
Since the film takes place in 1968, the film revels in one of the most impressively expensive soundtracks you’ll ever hear. Name a great Sixties band and odds are they’re in this film. Sometimes this works (fans of Hair are in for a treat) and sometimes it’s just distracting; the montage put to The Who’s “My Generation” doesn’t fit the lyrics of the song and “Happy Together” by The Turtles is used in the opening for no reason other than the indisputable fact that everybody loves that song. It’s a shame to see pop songs slathered over films when an original score would be preferable, but at least the songs they choose are already bona fide classics and not contemporary hits which will age the film prematurely.
Minions could have been a total disaster but the creators took advantage of every opportunity to make great jokes and experiment with old-fashioned slapstick. It doesn’t succeed to the extent of this year’s masterful Shaun the Sheep, which took similar risks, but it succeeds nonetheless. Illumination is a relatively new studio and are yet to produce a great animated film capable of standing alongside the best of Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks, but there’s enough potential to convince me that they someday will.