Minions, the third film in the Despicable Me series, is actually a prequel, which should have been cause for alarm. Prequels have become de rigueur among blockbuster cinema, a means of fleshing out characters who receive only rudimentary development in the initial installments. Effects and action sequences often crowd out instances of character development, and film studios rarely opt to leave an expensive CGI sequence on the cutting room floor just to allow for more development. The puzzling thing about Minions is that it chooses to focus on the least consequential (but perhaps most marketable) part of the first two films.
Despicable Me was built around the underachieving supervillain Felonious Gru (voiced with a vaguely Eastern European accent by Steve Carell) and the trio of children whom he adopts and eventually develops a fondness for. Gru’s failings and conflicts with other supervillains, his overbearing mother, and his growing relationship with the children all help to humanize him and make him a compelling protagonist.
Working mostly in the background of the first two films are the Minions, a race of tiny, yellow, one- or two-eyed creatures who speak in a mix of broken foreign languages and gibberish. They do the heavy lifting for Gru’s schemes, and their clumsy failures and nonsensical language are a major source of humor.
Minions, directed by Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin, finds the minions trying to serve the most powerful creatures they can find, even before the dawn of man. They do the bidding of various doomed individuals: a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a bellicose primitive man, and Napoleon during one of the Franco-Russian Wars (presumably this occurs over millions of years). Are the Minions immortal, or are they actually reproducing over time? And do Minions have sex, or are they asexual, producing new Minions through budding? None of these questions are answered.
The action skips ahead to 1968, when the minions are attempting to run their own society. In order to be happy, the Minions need to serve some greater person, preferably someone at least slightly evil. Three Minions, Kevin, Stuart, and Bob (all voiced by co-director Coffin), set off on a mission to New York City to find a new villain. The trip is ultimately just an excuse to show the Minions having fun in the city, and to play various classic rock hits from the period to mollify parents in the audience. After attending a convention of supervillains in (where else?) Orlando, Florida, the Minions become enamored of Scarlet Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock), the most exciting and dominant supervillain present. Scarlet Overkill accepts the service of the three Minions, but ultimately turns on them after a failed heist of Elizabeth II’s crown.
The great failure of Minions lies in the title: the film focuses on the least interesting, least developed, and least developable characters from Despicable Me. Although it’s possible to get a vague sense of emotions based on the tone of their voices, their ridiculous language makes it impossible to truly understand the Minions. The film even suggests that they aren’t much more developed than a toddler; the only time the Minions are able to communicate flawlessly is with a tyke in a stroller. Movies about babies doing crazy things don’t sell, but making them more optically-challenged and yellow seems to do the trick.
The other characters don’t fare much better. Scarlet Overkill seems more like an afterthought than the film’s primary villain. The motivation for her actions is limited to a set of crayon drawings from her childhood. They’re funny, but not particularly informative. Even Jon Hamm, who has become a reliable comedic actor after parts in Bridesmaids and 30 Rock, can’t deliver any real laughs. Smaller parts featuring Michael Keaton and Allison Janney seem designed to be hilarious and ridiculous, but end up being light on the humor. The problem seems to lie with the screenplay, which focuses on wild gesticulations rather than wit to elicit laughs. The biggest moments of conflict are underplayed; watching the film’s climax, I kept thinking that there had to be some bigger conflict coming up. It all just felt so small, which might be appropriate for a film about little yellow people.
It’s fitting that Minions takes a detour to Orlando, our national hub of commercialism and consumerism, with a dash of entertainment thrown in. As ridiculous as it is to base a whole movie around background characters, it makes perfect financial sense: the Minions are the most marketable, merchandisable part of the franchise, so why not give them their own film? We’ve already seen that they can sell toys and McDonald’s Happy Meals. And they’ll sell this shit, too.