Can a Franchise Sidekick Become the Main Star?
Director: PIERRE COFFIN, KYLE BALDA/2015
Like DreamWorks Animation’s The Penguins of Madagascar, Universal was taking an equal risk in green lighting the Despicable Me spinoff, Minions. Could a popular side character from an established franchise film carry their own story?
In the case of the Penguins, the answer is a resounding yes! ZekeFilm’s Jim Tudor agreed (read his review here). Penguins of Madagascar was a fresh and unique tale of fun that allowed itself to weave in and out of the larger Madagascar plotlines while maintaining something new and original. It wasn’t tied to a particular storyline in the main Madagascar films, so it can spawn sequels on its own while also going back to the larger series.
The big question was, could Minions pull off the same feat? The minions themselves, especially Bob, Kevin, and Stuart, were well loved from the original Despicable Me film serving Steve Carrell’s Gru with a childlike mischief, despite participating in dastardly deeds such as stealing the moon. They took a larger role in Despicable Me 2, as they were subjugated to serve the evil villain El Macho through a formula designed by Gru’s partner in crime, Dr. Nefario, which transformed them into purple little monsters instead of nice yellow ones. And while they were loved in these films, their gibberish language, constant laughter, and pranks made it a tough proposition to transform them into the protagonists of their origin story.
Minions begins with a long montage of single celled minions serving whatever baddie they stumble across from the primordial soup of single cell organisms to the age of the dinosaurs and the rise of man. In each case, they look for an “evil” master in which they may serve. After accidently offing their boss, a tyrannosaurus rex, they hide out in an ice cave for many years as their own community until they get the itch to find a new master. Kevin, the leader, picks Bob and Stuart to go with him in search of a new purpose in life.
Their journey takes place in 1968 where they land in New York during the summer of love. Through a series of events, they journey to Orlando to attend Villain-Con, a gathering of all of the super-villains. The most popular, and most ruthless, is Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock) who is looking for some henchmen to help her with a heist of the Queen of England’s crown. After the 3 protagonists prove their worth in a test of their skills at Villain-Con, they fly off to England to join Scarlett and her husband Herb (Jon Hamm-Million Dollar Arm, Mad Men), who is an inventor himself. Minions, as they do in the Despicable Me films, find their way to success without ever intending to do so. But in succeeding they cross Scarlett Overkill, and find that she is now seeking to destroy them.
The film largely sticks to the three main heroes with occasional looks at what the larger community of minions are doing back in the cave. This is probably a wise move, as 100’s of yellow creatures talking non-sense would be overkill, and not in a Scarlett sort of way. That being said, even with just 3 serving as the main characters, the story has no real heart or originality to it. It will please the young set whose love of these creatures will blind them to the glaring problems of the film itself. All others, however, be warned. This film, while having moments of fun is largely boring and it tries too hard in the end to lead into their association with Gru, despite taking place decades before the Despicable Mestories.
Sandra Bullock and Jon Hamm largely fall flat here, and she is given no opportunity to endear herself to the audience as a “likeable” villain. Her character is simply petty. Jon Hamm mostly “hams” it up, but he is given really nothing to do. His inventions play for more laughs than the film overall, especially a singing number involving 3 hypnotized guards, and of course one of his inventions causes a large oversized Kevin to emerge, borrowing a little too heavily from the oversized Animal in the original Muppet Movie. I saw the film in 3D, but it is a complete waste of time to see it in this format, except for the funniest part of the film which takes place during and after the credits where the 3D is finally put to some use.
While Penguins of Madagascar was a risk that paid off for DreamWorks, Minions is mostly a side show that falls flat. It turns out that cuteness and non-sensicall language is not enough to carry a film. Universal would be wise to rush Despicable Me 3 to get this series back on track. The minions just simply work better as the comic relief in a larger story, not as the main protagonists. That being said, I’m sure this will make tons of money from the built in audience it already has from the Despicable Mefranchise to render my critique ineffective. The Minions are better serving a master like Gru, than trying to be their own master through this spinoff dud.