Minions, the scene-stealing little yellow pill-shaped babblers from the Despicable Me movies, have been spun off into a feature film all their own. You could say they’ve gotten this honor because, with a distinctive look and elemental appeal, they’ve proved themselves instant members of the Cartoon Characters Hall of Fame. You could also say it’s because they’re a money-minting merchandise machine. It’s a bit of both. Minions follows the title group’s antics from before they met up with Gru, their supervillain-with-a-heart-of-gold boss in their earlier films. They’re shorn free of his story’s sentimentality, involving fighting off worse villains for the sake of his adorable adopted daughters. Instead, the Minions are careening on a fast-paced consequence-free zip through sequences of amiably silly animated slapstick. There’s not much to it, but it’s often too pleasant and amusing to resist, at least for those of us predisposed to find the Minions funny.
Screenwriter Brian Lynch and co-directors Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda are smart to keep the story simple, the action goofy, and the focus on the cute, unpredictable lead creatures. What is it that makes the Minions so appealing? They have visual simplicity, aural abstraction, and physical malleability. They speak near-total nonsense, and yet because they wobble their bodies and stretch their little faces, we can always figure out what they’re feeling. It’s pleasing inscrutability. They’re ageless, genderless, and timeless, speaking language made up of gibberish and bits of every language under the sun. But they’re so strong-willed, we can watch them express elemental emotions. Minions are mischievous troublemakers, quick to laugh and quick to get angry, easily frustrated, sputtering and grumbling, or opening up their mouths in blasts of staccato laughter.
We open on a montage of their failed attempts to find a boss, the more despicable the better, from prehistoric times on. The Minions (all voiced by Coffin), wander through the ages inadvertently leading a variety of employers (a dinosaur, a caveman, a vampire, Napoleon) to their doom. These early moments play on pre-verbal visual jokes and cartoony energy, while a booming narrator (Geoffrey Rush) speaks over-emphatically about whatever silliness we observe – a T. Rex trying to balance on a boulder, a caveman using a flyswatter on a bear, an army of Minions in Napoleonic uniforms wobbling through the snow. Eventually, the creatures flee an angry mob into the wilderness where they hide in a cave for many decades, luckily avoiding work for Hitler or the KKK while they’re at it.
By 1968 they’ve grown bored of their exile. Three Minions, a tall one named Kevin and two shorter ones named Stuart and Bob (I could rarely tell them apart) leave in search of a new home where they can serve a villain. After a long trek through the wilderness, a rowboat across the ocean (complete with the old reliable seeing-others-as-giant-fruit hunger pains), and a stop in New York City, the trio finds their way to Orlando for a Villain Convention. They hitchhiked, picked up by a deceptively sunny couple (Allison Janney and Michael Keaton) and their kids, whose family secret is too funny to reveal. At the convention, they win the affection of the terrifically named villain Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock, teetering smoothly between sweet and mean), who invites them back to her place in London and demands they help her execute a heist.
That’s the long and short of the plot, with a series of manic antics and rubbery cartoon violence twisting and turning its way to a slaphappy conclusion. The Minions almost can’t quite hold down a full, interesting story on their own. But every stop on their trip is bright, colorful, and manic, full of characters and designs appealingly clever and round. Retro-cool supervillain gadgetry, wardrobe, and architecture fit right in with a Swinging Sixties London. The likes of The Beatles, The Who, and The Kinks jump on the soundtrack as the Minions are stuck in a vintage Bond meets Rube Goldberg meets Thunderbirds aesthetic. There are lots of visual gags from slapstick violence, cultural iconography, and teasing naughtiness – characters flailing every which way in loose hectic zaniness. In the center of it all, Kevin, Bob, and Stewart are Looney Tunes crossed with Three Stooges, pliable indestructible absurdities driven to get a job done, but too incompetent to do it right.
They bumble into conflict with a Tower Guard (Steve Coogan), a lanky inventor/torture chamber enthusiast (Jon Hamm), and the Queen (Jennifer Saunders), before Overkill herself turns on them. It's good for conflict. But the people and all their funny chattering and flailing can’t match the little yellow guys for appeal. The Minions have no emotional arc or great lessons to learn. Not even Gru could be so purely powered by id. They want their buddies. They want fun. They want bananas. They’ll do anything to get back to a comfortable status quo serving Saturday morning cartoon villainy. There are car chases, hypnosis, disguises, trap doors, elaborate weapons (a lava lamp gun was my favorite), and mad science gone wrong, but the stakes never feel all that high. (Look what happens to a time traveling scientist for an example of matters straight-faced horrifying this movie’s bouncy tone covers up.) It’s a simple jaunt through rubbery ridiculousness. Minions’ only interest is in tickling you into distraction.