OK, I did really enjoy Despicable Me. And, despite serious apprehension, I did end up enjoying Despicable Me 2 as well. They were fun movies, with lots of laughs that could be enjoyed by an adult audience as well as by kids. And part of that was to do with the Minions, those strange yellow-skinned nonsense speaking characters, who provided quick bits of humour in-between the more plot relevant scenes.
I suppose, in the modern day and age of constant franchise creation and the milking of properties, it should be viewed as inevitable that the Minions would get their own adventure. I went into this one with a bit of the same apprehension I had for Despicable Me 2. Was I right to have those feelings, or was Minions another animated adventure to surprise?
Minions: these strange creatures have been wondering around the planet for longer than humans have, always seeking the baddest and most wicked overlord to serve. When the tribe hits a real slump in the “Serving the evil one” stakes, minions Kevin, Stuart and Bob strike out on their own to find salvation for their people, perhaps in the form of super-villainess Scarlett Overdrive (Sandra Bullock) and her weapon-creating husband Herb (Jon Hamm).
This will be a short enough review, because I only have so many points to make. Before this film, and before many films over the last few months, on TV, on Facebook, on Twitter, in stores and on billboards, I have been assaulted by the Minions in a visual sense, their image plastered over anything and everything: books, lunchboxes, lunches, TV subscription packages, broadband deals, schoolbags, inspirational memes, whatever people feet needed improving by having one of these animated characters slapped on top of it, with most of it meant as something we can exchange money for.
And man has it gotten tiring, wearying. There is only so much toleration of a franchise cashing in you can muster up before it starts to affect your view of the franchise as a whole, and I would be lying if I claimed that seeing the characters I had come to see shill a few products in the ads before the actual movie didn’t leave somewhat of a bad taste in my mouth. I had feared, before I saw it, that Despicable Me2 was a cash-in. I was wrong. Minions is the cash-in.
And that really does follow through into the actual film itself, which is a rather pedestrian stroll through paths well travelled. A few jokes, lots of physical comedy, references to pop culture, some celebrity voices, slapstick, repeat until around 90 minutes have passed. There are a few moments in Minions that will make you laugh, but so much of the exercise is a stretching of material that really shouldn’t be stretched.
The Minions, between their indecipherable voices and frequent costume changes, simply aren’t the kind of characters that can carry a whole movie and still be any good. They are perfect when employed as intermission fodder, the guys to do a quick joke or sketch in-between scenes, for a cheap laugh to keep the audience ticking over. When the entire film becomes the Minions, the joke, unfortunately, gets old very quickly, and Minions was a film that I liked less and less as time went on, climaxing in a finale that I was mostly bored by. In that vein, some of the best jokes and moments are in the films prologue, depicting Minions, throughout history, working for a succession of bad guys – dinosaurs, cavemen, Pharaohs, Dracula, Napoleon – but the problem is that nearly the entire sequence was used in early promotional material, so it was nothing I hadn’t seen already. Having poured their best work into trailers, the team behind Minions is left scrambling to keep the audience engaged and entertained.
Since the main trio are so lacking in character – the Minions are, by and large, all the same character really, with maybe one of them being slightly sillier, one being slightly more serious – if Minions is going to pull it off it needs the supporting cast – the actual voice talent – to pull through. And they really don’t. Sandra Bullock’s Scarlett Overdrive is kind of fun, but the performance is limp. Michael Keaton and Allison Janney are regrettably underutilised. Geoffrey Rush’s narration isn’t all that. Only Jon Hamm, really enjoying himself in the role of Overkill’s devoted inventor husband Herb, really stands out, carrying on brilliantly from his zany turn in the recent Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix.
On the visual side of things, it’s all fine, dandy and colourful, but we really have gotten to the stage in 3D animation where a certain level of competence is easily reached, and any attempt at aiming for something more goes by the wayside. I take no pleasure in saying that, but it does need to be said: when forced to come up with a scene of various character designs, at a super villain convention, the team behind Minions does well, but so much else of what’s on display isn’t all that impressive, not anymore. At least the soundtrack is good though, but I wonder if it might not actually be a negative to say that some of the best parts of the 90 minutes was listening to tracks from the 60’s play over the actual action.
A great compare and contrast can be made between this film and last year’s Penguins Of Madagascar which, while regrettably not doing all that well at the box office, was a film that I really enjoyed. Both films are 3D animated, both feature supporting characters from a main franchise striking out on their own adventure, both are aimed primarily at a younger audience but with an ingrained sense of blacker comedy for the adult crowd. But Penguins Of Madagascar worked in a whole lot of ways that Minions didn’t. The Penguins, being able to actually talk, could form lots of comedy moments that the Minions can’t, and had a bedrock of character interplay to work from. The team behind Penguins didn’t have to rely on good musical choices or crass commercialisation to cover up cracks, and also made far better use of celebrity voice talent: compare John Malkovich’s amazing turn as “Dave” in that film to the way that Sandra Bullock goes through the motions in Minions for an idea of what I mean. Simply out, the Penguins were the perfect supporting characters, capable of carrying their own film, to give a spin-off to, and it’s a shame that it didn’t work out for them in the same way that it apparently has for the Minions, whose solo offering has only a fraction of the charm and worth, in my opinion, of Penguins Of Madagascar.
I won’t belabour this point any longer than I have to. There were moments I enjoyed in Minions, when darker comedy came to the fore or whenever Jon Hamm was talking, but for most of it I can say that I was not all that impressed. There are better films of this type out there, and Minions strikes me as a very lazy way to cash-in on the popularity of the central characters, without doing anything to justify creatively its own existence. A few laughs here and there, but not one that I would recommend.
(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).