By Preston Wilder
Minions, Minions, Minions … They’re on T-shirts and lunchboxes. Kid-sized Minion totems adorn the entrances of toyshops and fancy-dress emporiums. They single-handedly guided Despicable Me 2 – a mediocre cartoon – to almost $1 billion at the global box-office, and now the Minions have their own, self-titled vehicle. Are they taking over the world?
Well, yes and no. Yes, because the squat yellow creatures are everywhere – but also no, because they can’t take over the world: it’s not in their nature. Minions aren’t leaders, they’re followers. Since the beginning of Time, their mission has been to find the worst, most nefarious villain and latch on to him, her or it. Minions, in other words, are parasites. Minions also have no morals, and in fact are actively immoral. Minions aren’t the greatest role models for your kids – though parents will be more concerned about whether the film is scary, which I guess it could be for the very young and sensitive. There’s some rather dark humour, especially when the Minions accidentally cause the demise of their masters. A yeti is crushed by a falling icicle, a T-Rex falls in a fiery abyss; Stone Age Man tries to club a bear – but the Minions advise him to use a fly-swatter instead, which turns out to be very bad advice. They were only trying to help!
Minions are naturally mischievous, with a sense of happy anarchy. “So you think it’s funny to make fun of older people?” a blind old man asks Stuart, or possibly Kevin, or possibly Bob. “Si!” replies the Minion with no hint of malice, just an honest answer to an honest question. (Minionese seems to have a lot of Spanish though it is apparently an official ‘Conlang’, or ‘constructed language’.) The blind old codger, meanwhile, is the Keeper of St. Edward’s Crown, the three Minions’ mission – as commanded by their latest master, slinky supervillain Scarlet Overkill – being to steal the crown from Queen Elizabeth II. They tussle with the Queen in the back of the royal carriage, then Bob ends up being crowned King Bob of England while Liz Windsor, bereft of crown and position, sinks pints and arm-wrestles patrons in a pub called The Pig’s Spleen.
Clearly, the humour in Minions is more sophisticated than in The Smurfs, another recent hit about a race of toy-like creatures learning the ways of humans. It also helps that the film is set in the 60s, not the present day – it’s a prequel to Despicable Me – so the whole thing works as a bubbly fairytale, powered by 60s pop hits and sly references to Richard Nixon, the cover of the Beatles’ Abbey Road and the conspiracy theory claiming that the Moon landings were staged (like I said, quite sophisticated). As cash-ins to unexpected hits go, it could’ve been worse.
That said, there’s unlikely to be a ‘Minions 2’ (the film takes the sidekicks right up to their meeting with Gru, of Despicable Me), which is just as well – not just because sequels suck, but also because it’s hard to see how the concept could be stretched to a second movie. Minions, by definition, don’t have much personality (they’re happy to follow the herd; that’s the joke). Bob is given a guitar, and Stuart a teddy-bear, but the three lead characters are otherwise indistinguishable; Minions doesn’t even attempt the emotional arcs and final-act dramas of its Pixar equivalents.
Yet the film is charming. Trying to get to Florida, the hapless Minions seek directions from a dog, a baby and a fire hydrant. Later, the entire troupe sing ‘Make ’Em Laugh’ in Minionese for an audience of Abominable Snowmen. In between we have ‘Villain-Con’, a baddies’ convention where aspiring rogues attend seminars on ‘How to Be Bad’ and the Minions seek assistance from a Henchman Placement Service. They’ve already met a few of the attendees, hitching a ride with a clean-cut family who turn out to be bank robbers, though the Minions are unfazed when that happens. Minions are always unfazed. Minions are indestructible; you can’t torture or try to kill them, they’ll only laugh and think it’s a game. Unlike the Smurfs, who have a hierarchical mini-society, Minions have no real concept of right and wrong. They’re like kids, excited by everything. All they want is a parent, someone to belong to – and, like kids, they don’t judge.
Minions are also cute. They’re cute when they do the smallest things, from taking out a card to saying “Bye-bye!” to wondering whether to work for an aquatic supervillain (“Can you breathe underwater?” asks a little girl, and Stuart cheeps: “So-so”). They wear thongs, befriend a rat in the sewers, buy a ticket to the Tower of London with a solid-gold ingot, and storm the Tube shouting “Mind the gap!” in unison. At one point they get chased by a mob that includes a tank, a chainsaw-wielding maniac and a creepy clown – yet still they survive. How do they do it? Forget it, Jake, it’s Minions.
DIRECTED BY Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda
WITH THE VOICES OF Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Geoffrey Rush
US 2015 91 mins