A “Despicable Me” prequel that traces Gru’s comic-relief henchmen all the way back to the time when they were single-celled organisms, “Minions” hilariously imagines centuries in which the little guys have sought to serve the greatest villain they could find, but quickly settles into more conventional cartoon territory once they fix on a dastardly new master named Scarlet Overkill, voiced by Sandra Bullock. Delivering more Minions but less heart than their two previous outings (which earned $543 million and $970 million worldwide), this by-popular-demand detour proves that as boundless as the yellow creatures’ appeal may seem, they work better as supporting characters than as the main attraction — not that the Minions will be wearing out their welcome anytime soon. They’re still the funniest cartoon characters in town, hitting that silly sweet spot capable of delighting everyone from toddlers to Kim Jong-un, bound to reach new international box office heights for Universal’s Illumination Entertainment.
When it comes to franchise adventure pics, each successive installment is only as strong as its villain — a notion “Minions” illustrates by introducing a new baddie who isn’t nearly as good as Gru. But long before Scarlet Overkill makes her entrance, directors Pierre Coffin (the French comedy genius who dreamt up the Minions in the first place) and Kyle Balda (a Pixar vet who co-helmed “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax”) win us over with a tightly compressed, laugh-a-minute prologue designed to provide some much-needed backstory for these tiny yellow freaks of nature, tracing the Minions’ evolution from prehistoric times.
Given the Minions’ own linguistic limitations (though they babble constantly, their speech comes across as 90% nonsense, punctuated occasionally by words that sound familiar, like “banana” and “kumbaya”), Geoffrey Rush proves a welcome guide in the opening stretch, supplying narration to explain the strange species’ hit-and-miss history. Clumsy, foolish and helplessly herd-oriented, the Minions are the ultimate beta personalities, desiring nothing more than to serve the most despicable master they can find — the more ferocious the better. It’s no coincidence that one English word stands out amid their chatter: “boss.”
But the Minions are better at finding a master than at keeping one, and more often than not, they’re directly responsible for their own unemployment, whether that means bumping a T. rex into an open volcano or accidentally exposing Dracula to full daylight. As a direct result of the Minions’ unsolicited assistance, their early bosses suffer an unusually high fatality rate, whereas no Minions appear to have been harmed in the making of the film — a missed opportunity if ever there was.
The film’s sense of humor is already Mad-magazine macabre: Just imagine the potential laughs in watching the lemming-like creatures’ trial-and-error process reduce their number by a few hundred or so. Establishing the Minions as expendable, rather than virtually immortal, might also have helped to set the stakes for the trio who serve as the film’s main characters. Instead, even a nuclear blast doesn’t seem to faze their cockroach-like resilience.
After losing the battle of Waterloo for Napoleon, the Minions are sent into exile, where idea guy Kevin (slightly taller than the others, which might allow room for an extra brain cell or two) hatches the plan to leave their icy cave and seek out a new master. At least, that’s what it sounds like he’s proposing in his speech, though one can never be too sure when Minions are talking (nearly all of their dialogue is performed by Coffin himself). Asking for volunteers, Kevin enlists one-eyed, ukulele-toting Stuart and easily distractible Bob, an affable runt with different-colored irises. Together, they leave their tribe and set out to find a villain ambitious enough to require a support crew.
Though it might not feel like Illumination’s most ambitious film to date, “Minions” certainly covers the most ground, featuring scenes in different eras and international cities. The trio’s first stop is New York, washing ashore in Manhattan at the height of the hippie era (which explains why vintage pop tunes, some of them sung by Minions, have replaced the funky Pharrell Williams score heard in the “Despicable Me” movies).
Finding the city severely lacking in evil masterminds, they happen to tune a borrowed television to the top-secret Villain Network Channel just in time to catch a promotion for Intl. Villain Con in Orlando — no doubt an ideal recruitment opportunity for potential bench creatures like themselves. (And why not? There are wacky confabs for every other special interest under the sun, though this development suggests yet another path not taken, had they instead gone to Comic-Con and hooked up with some cosplay fanboy merely pretending to be a villain.)
Hitchhiking to Florida, Kevin, Stuart and Bob catch a ride with a family of bank robbers named the Nelsons (the father is voiced by Michael Keaton, the mother by Allison Janney), getting a renewed taste for how great it feels to serve a human master. Turns out the Minions are constantly looking to upgrade, so upon arrival, they quickly ditch the Nelsons and go searching for the worst meanie they can find: Scarlet Overkill. With her rocket-powered red dress and crazy plans to steal the Queen of England’s crown, she’s flashy and just the right degree deranged, but there’s something off about the chemistry between Scarlet and her newfound assistants.
Already supported by Mod-scientist inventor Herb (Jon Hamm), Scarlet’s much too capable, for starters, whereas Gru (who shows up later in the story) really does benefit from the Minions’ help, while they in turn drew a misfit-family satisfaction from the arrangement that’s missing here. Anyone who’s ever worked for a bad boss should appreciate the suffering Scarlet puts her underlings through, and yet, the filmmakers opt to use this wacky sado-maso dynamic more for suspense than humor, building up to a gonzo action sequence involving a kaiju-sized Minion. Stronger on concept than story, Brian Lynch’s “Minions” script emphasizes scale over quantity, cutting back to the cave where the rest of the gang are sitting idle at regular intervals, rather than taking advantage of their numbers to generate more of the crowd-based comedy seen in the earlier films.
Analyzing the result — as opposed to merely sitting back and enjoying it, as so many around the world are sure to do — one quickly realizes what a crazy challenge the film must have been. Not only are its characters incapable of expressing themselves in plain English (though “Wall-E” demonstrated the relatively highbrow potential of that restriction), but their personalities are so ripe for exploiting that there must have been a million Minion ideas that Lynch and everyone involved simply weren’t able to incorporate into the film. Here’s hoping the best of them find their way into “Despicable Me 3,” due out summer 2017.