It must have seemed like such a good idea. Take the loveable little yellow minions from DESPICABLE ME and star them in their own movie. Certainly the eponymous MINIONS features much of what made them so irresistible. There’s that burbling mélange of human and Minion-esque language. The ebullient nature, the eagerness to please, and that unexpectedly moving depth of emotion. No one is happy quite like a minion, and no one can wade through the slough of despond like one, either. Yet when saddled with a supervillain who lacks panache, and a story that has so little pizzazz, there is only so much these oblong dynamos can accomplish.
The film plumbs the early history of the Minion species, from protozoa through their misadventures with dinosaurs, cave men, and Napoleon. Their happiness, it seems, depends on finding an embodiment of pure evil and serving it with the wild abandon, and total lack of skill, that only a Minion can achieve. After having wiped out their last master, the Minions have hit a dry spell of several centuries. Relegated to an ice cave in the arctic, and growing more and more despondent about their lack of purpose, a leader arises. That would be Kevin, who along with Bob, a banana-fancier, and Kevin, a budding musician, strikes out to find a suitable master to restore the Minions’ sense of self-worth.
They end up in 1968 New York, where they pick up their coveralls, and thence to pre-touristy Orlando, FL, and the 89th annual International Villain Convention. There they meet their destiny, though the master turns out to be a mistress, Scarlett Overkill (voice of Sandra Bullock), an evil prodigy who was running her own criminal empire at the age of thirteen. There’s just one catch, in order to qualify for henchman status, they have to perform one little task: steal the Queen of England’s crown.
Alas, little of the mayhem has the bite, the snap, or the sheer imaginative edge of either DESPICABLE MEs. The Minions are adorable, of course, and their physical humor retains that curious blend of innocent sweetness and bumbling fearlessness all done with a perfect comedic timing that rocketed them to iconic status. Their adventure, while amusing enough, suffers from uninspired dialogue and lengthy chase sequences that do not have the ingenuity to keep them airborne. Scarlett is a shrill, one-note creation. Her paramour, the mad-genius inventor and putative fox, Herb (Jon Hamm) skulks and spouts the lingo of 1968 without an ounce of conviction.
There are glimmers of the old magic. Scarlett’s flying machine is a giant red thunderbolt. A survey of the villain’s convention gifts us with a brief meditation on the perils of tampering with the time-space continuum. One of Herb’s inventions is a lava-lamp gun with real lava. Allison Janney drops in as the crackly but supportive voice of the perky matron of a criminal family growing into their greatness, giving more menace, more character development, and more charisma in her few minutes of screen time can conjure with her underwritten starring role. To be fair, she does have a chance to do her trademark “no no no no no no” mantra, which is delightful, and her condescending break-up with the Minions is a perfect vehicle for her innately charming brand of sarcasm.
If you were to edit MINIONS into several short films focusing on any of their mini-adventures, the result would be a collection of thoroughly entertaining comedies. If you take that attitude when seeing the film, you’ll have a pretty good time at the movies. A satisfying one, well, no, but perhaps that is the lesson of MINIONS. Stay optimistic, and everything will work out in the end.