The title of “Minions” refers to its main characters, a troop of bright-yellow, pill-shaped creatures who served as comic relief henchmen in the first two “Despicable Me” films. But it might as well refer to its intended audience, the very young children who are most likely to be amused by this silly, superficial, commercial trifle.
Your own little minions might love it, but if you’re old enough to be their villainous overlord, or even just the kindly adult who accompanies them to the movies, you’ll probably be less enthralled.
Those who’ve seen the “Despicable Me” films will already be familiar with the basic Minion concept: In those two movies, the tiny yellow fellows appeared as bumbling, zany, enthusiastic helpers to the series’ protagonist, the exquisitely evil supervillain Felonious Gru. They spoke in a highly idiosyncratic, mostly incomprehensible babble, and they provided an abstract comic sideshow in support of his plans.
In “Minions,” they’re back, in all their yellow, incomprehensible, banana-obsessed glory. This spinoff promotes the former sidekicks to full-fledged protagonists. The movie follows three Minions — Kevin, Stuart, and Bob (all voiced, once again, by Pierre Coffin). The story, set in 1968, takes them through New York, Orlando and, finally, swinging ‘60s London as they set out on a quest to find the one thing the Minion tribe lacks: the biggest, baddest supervillain the world has ever known to be their boss.
But while the Minions made great comic punctuation, they’re far less effective as leading creatures. These babbling bad guy buddies were so hilarious in the earlier films in part because they were so random. You didn’t know where they came from or what they would do next. They existed outside the demands of narrative conventions, in a state of hilarious absurdist imbalance. They were funny in part because there was no attempt to explain them.
Here they’re front and center. It doesn’t help that the supporting cast has so little to offer. The Nelsons, a family of gung-ho bank robbers (with parents voiced by the great, underused duo of Michael Keaton and Allison Janney) has far too little to do after the first half-hour. The movie’s main supervillain, Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), is a shrill, one-note concoction. Her husband, the goofy cool Londoner Herb Overkill (Jon Hamm), is only a little better. Even still, he’s more vibe than character.
Part of the problem is that the movie is padded with period pop culture references. Little kids won’t get most of them, and few are particularly funny even for those who do. Another issue is that the Minions are now more children than henchmen — reduced to simply sweet and cuddly creatures rather than the childlike destructive maniacs of the first two films.
As an expansion of the “Despicable Me” universe, “Minions” comes across as a vaguely crass attempt to cash in on the success of the first two films. That’s fair enough, but this expanded universe franchise may have already expanded a bit too far. As an origin story, “Minions” saddles its characters with all the trappings of traditional protagonists: goals, desires, feelings and motivations. In other words, it gives them character and context. The noisy little sideshow Minions were far funnier, and far more endearing, without that context.
CREDITS: Directed by Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda, screenplay by Brian Lynch
RATING: Rated PG for comic violence
RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: Four stars