Like it or not, the Minions are here to stay but their place in pop-cultural history rests somewhere in between Billy Joel and Garfield. They’ll endure – mostly as a punchline – as they continue to be embraced by the very young (who will grow up to be embarrassed by it) and hateful adults who are delighted by the joyless, business casual “fun” of things like ‘Talk Like a Pirate Day’. They’ll be remembered, sure, but not in that same fuzzy way future generations will remember SpongeBob Squarepants or any Pixar character. Instead, thoughts of their shrill, gibberish spewing voices will be met with a collective shudder as memories of the Minions are dumped in the thrift store bins of America’s consciousness.
But, to be fair, as much as I hate the Minions and their inevitable legacy of unwavering mediocrity, “Minions” is a surprisingly watchable movie. Not good, mind you, but not exactly bad either. Michael Keaton, Steve Coogan, Katy Mixon and Jon Hamm are all in it in some capacity, it’s set in the ’60s and filled with decidedly mod visuals, there’s even some surprising moments of dark comedy. “Minions” is far less annoying than you probably realize.
At the very least “Minions” starts out strongly with a prologue revealing that the Minions have existed since the beginning of time. Starting out as single-celled organisms, the Minions quickly evolve into pill shaped irritants who almost parasitically attach themselves to whom or whatever could possibly conceived as a supervillain type. These early scenes are probably the film’s most enjoyable mainly because it’s amusing to watch the Minions stumble through history, glom onto the likes of Dracula and Napoleon and then literally kill them with kindness. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t continue down this revisionist path.
There is no scene in which the Minions drop an especially large balalaika on Stalin’s head and cause him to die of a cerebral hemorrhage. At no point is Hitler burned to death in his bunker when a Minion sets one of his farts on fire. Instead, after the Minions comically murder Napoleon, they attempt to live a solitary life in the arctic. But it’s only a matter of time before they realize that life is basically unlivable when it’s not spent entertaining a genocidal maniac with pratfalls and silly covers of Broadway standards. So, a trio of Minions with the kind of one-note personalities that can be easily translated into plush dolls (one of them carries around a guitar! Isn’t that bro-tally dude-ical, kids? Ricketty Rockitty Roll!) go on a quest to find a supervillain they could mindlessly serve. That supervillain turns out to be Scarlet Overkill (a miscast Sandra Bullock) an unhinged lunatic (sort of resembling John Waters’ utility player Mink Stole) who has sinister plans for the Minions once they manage to steal the crown away from the Queen of England.
As annoying as the Minions can be, there’s something bold about basing a movie around a set of characters that can only speak indecipherable nonsense. But that boldness is hobbled by the fact that – possibly due to studio tampering – Geoffrey Rush was called in to narrate and needlessly explain what the Minions are saying, thinking and doing. Additionally, the Minions’ unique(ly grating) language reverts to a hodge-podge of rudimentary English, Spanish and French phrases. Not since the original studio cut of “Blade Runner” has a movie underestimated the intelligence of its target audience. Granted, it’s a kids’ movie, but even kids can manage to follow a story even if it’s communicated through character’s facial expressions. It also doesn’t help that Scarlet Overkill is such an underwhelming comic foil. Mostly that’s because Bullock plays the character like a slightly pissier version of the distant workaholic she plays in her middling romantic comedies. Surely there was some former or current SNL cast member that would have been happy to do this?
On the plus side, a pitch black, almost fatalistic streak runs through “Minions.”Apart from the fact that the sudden violent deaths of minor characters function, as a reoccurring punchline, the Minions are shown stealing a wreath from a funeral (which one of them wears as a hat), “tortured” in a sequence that wouldn’t look out of place in a Charles Addams cartoon and, inexplicably applauded for murdering a pair of state troopers with a bazooka.
At times “Minions” seems to be going out of its way to give small children nightmares especially when a grenade juggling clown on a unicycle is introduced in the third act. But it’s this gleeful nastiness that takes the maudlin, manufactured edge off of this unnecessary franchise extension. Hell, at times you’d almost swear that “Minions” is a good movie. But then an extended shot of a Minion in a thong slaps you in the face and reminds that it kind of isn’t.
Mike Sullivan is a movie reviewer for Weekender. Movie reviews appear weekly in Weekender.
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Steve Coogan, Pierre Coffin
Director: Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda
Weekender Rating: WWV