Ah, the irony. Though the villains they support are bumbling at best, the little yellow hench-creatures known as “the Minions” have gone on to achieve world domination.
Popping up these days on everything from pinatas to Pez dispensers, the Minions made their first appearance in 2010’s “Despicable Me,” the debut feature of Chris Meledandri’s then-fledgling Illumination Entertainment. It was thanks in large part to the characters’ global popularity that the budget-conscious, Universal-backed toon studio has been able to compete with the likes of deeper-pocketed Pixar and DreamWorks, releasing at a fraction of the cost films that have grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide.
This summer, Stuart, Kevin, Bob and their silly yellow cohorts have been promoted from sidekicks to stars of their own “Minions” movie, world premiering at the Annecy Intl. Animated Film Festival, where Meledandri will receive Mifa & Variety’s Animation Personality of the Year Award.
A former president of Fox Animation, Meledandri forged that studio’s partnership with Blue Sky, yielding such blockbusters as “Ice Age” and “Horton Hears a Who!” before branching off to start his own company. With Illumination, Meledandri launched an international search for another world-class creative ally, landing on Paris-based Mac Guff to create a trans-Atlantic toon outfit.
As for the Minions, their ascension unfolded very organically for Meledandri. “It was very reminiscent for me of how Scrat came to life when I was making ‘Ice Age’ (at Fox),” he says. “I personally had no involvement in creating the character.” But after spotting Scrat during the production process, the exec was able to suggest a much broader use of the character throughout the film.
With the Minions, the clues came even earlier. Meledandri couldn’t help but notice “the degree of creativity and, dare I say, fun” the Minions inspired among the artists working on the first film. “My experience is that there’s absolutely a correlation between the enthusiasm within an animation studio for a given character and the enthusiasm the audience feels when seeing the movie,” he says.
Given the international appetite for more, it was demand more than opportunity that inspired the “Minions” spinoff, buying additional time for the Santa Monica-based studio to develop several original projects, which include “The Secret Life of Pets” and a music-driven event comedy starring Matthew McConaughey.
“Our starting point was a question that we get asked all the time, which is, ‘Where did the Minions come from, and what was their life like before Gru?,’” Meledandri says. “So that essentially became their origin story. But the idea of tackling a film where your three main characters do not speak a language that audiences understand was formidable from the outset.”
And yet, one secret to Illumination’s success has been its uniquely international mix of talent — not just American and French, but artists recruited from all over the world to work for the toon studio. “This was a hope I had when we started the company eight years ago: If we are going to make film with the aspiration of appealing to a global audience, we should design the complexion of our creative team to resemble the breadth of the audience that we’re trying to reach.”
Although Pierre Coffin (who voices the three main Minions) and co-director Kyle Balda derive much of their inspiration from silent comedians and other nonverbal cartoon characters, don’t let the Minions’ seemingly nonsensical tongue fool you: Coffin insists on dubbing their voices differently for every country, tweaking words that sound recognizable to American ears in order to create an equivalent effect in China, Russia or wherever the films are released.
“In animation, what’s wonderful is that when you start to work with multiple nationalities, the common language becomes a visual language, rather than a spoken language, which blends beautifully with the art form,” Meledandri says.