For decades, sidekicks in mainstream animated movies had to make do with stealing scenes from their blander masters: your princesses, your princes, your occasional heroic orphan. But as the major computer-animation providers search for ways to extend their brands, they’ve become willing to flout narrative convention and spin off whole movies starring the penguins from Madagascar or the Minions, those diminutive pill-shaped yellow weirdos from the Despicable Me films. In the latter case, the feature Minions goes so far as to retcon the beloved chatterboxes all the way back to the beginning of life on Earth.
This makes less sense than their implied origin in Despicable Me as creations of aspiring supervillain Gru, but showing the Minions crawling out of the ocean more or less fully formed (minus their trademark blue overalls, acquired in the 20th century) does lead to some funny sequences of the little yellow folks bumbling their way through prehistory, the dawn of man, and into recorded history, forever in search of the strongest supervillain to serve. Or, more accurately, this would lead to some funny sequences if Minions trusted its audience to understand the medium of animation. The Minions come from a long line of cartoon characters unencumbered by the English language and perfectly expressive without it. Yet their movie opens with plummy storybook narration explaining who the Minions are, what they want, and on and on, suffocating what should be a fun gag reel. (With prolonged exposure, the movie also loosens up their gibberish style of speaking—voiced, per gibberish-talking sidekick tradition, by director Pierre Coffin—slipping in plenty of English words among French and Spanish phrases.) Half the fun of this character style is the way animators can communicate so much through facial movements or expressive slapstick, but Minions is too busy translating itself to appreciate its own potential craft.
Maybe studio executives worried that the narrator was needed to immediately differentiate between the three Minions who strike out to find their tribe a new boss: Kevin, the industrious leader; Bob, the childlike innocent; and Stuart, the one who, uh, likes guitars. Their half-assed hero’s journey serves primarily to work around the vast yellow horde established by the previous films, simplifying the main story down to a manageable trio on a mission and leaving the rest of the Minions off in the comic-relief margins. This decision also has the curious function of re-fashioning this prequel/spin-off into an ineffectual sort-of-remake of the original Despicable Me. Instead of three little girls softening up the quasi-evil Gru, three cute little Minions stay relatively innocent by bumbling away from the actually evil Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock, gamely miscast), who they meet while attending Villain-Con in 1968 Orlando (the pre-Disney state of which is amusingly depicted via an abandoned gas station in a swamp).
Even more curious, not much of this business is all that funny. Some amusing if fleeting gags pop up, and when Bob accidentally gets crowned King Of England, there’s a taste of the comic anarchy these characters provided in the previous Despicable films. But by leaning so hard on the imagined Minion ethos of supervillain-worship, the spin-off muddles its conception of both the characters and its comic definition of supervillainy, which winds up looking more than ever like mischief chased with the occasional violent death. It doesn’t clarify matters that, despite all of the chatter about bosses and evildoing and villains, most of the Minions appear more interested in training for a movie-ending dance party. Thankfully, the film manages to avoid that particular animation trope, though it does mount several impromptu Minion covers of popular songs, with a ’60s-heavy soundtrack. Regardless of muddled motivations, the Minions are funnier as a collective than as individuals, putting Kevin, Bob, and Stuart in the awkward position of having their movie stolen from them (however briefly) by some of their own. There’s far more joy in the way an anonymous Minion packs his mouth with cookies before fleeing a restaurant than in Kevin’s desire for acknowledgment of his leadership skills.
The Euro-inflected animators try to liven up the formula by experimenting with different forms: the limited-color retro advertisement for Villain-Con and a brief bedtime story animated in stop-motion style add more than the rest of the ’60s setting (which otherwise means a few retro fashions and plenty of lazy anachronisms in the dialogue). But most of Minions proceeds with state-of-the-art computer animation, both the reason it exists and maybe the reason it’s not as much fun as it should be. At its best, big-studio computer animation opens up all manners of possibilities, allowing the filmmakers to play around with goofy sight-gag weapons like a lava-lamp gun that fires real lava and a set of robot limbs that Bob acquires for the length of an action sequence. At worst, though, it amps up the purity of animated slapstick to blockbuster levels of bombast. Minions has idiosyncratic roots, but it’s a franchise play all the way. Finally, even 5-year-olds have their own movie that mechanically cashes in on something they loved when they were younger.