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Henchmen's History

Universal Pictures
 91 Minutes
Rated: PG
Directed by: Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin, 
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Pierre Coffin 

One of the biggest and most pleasant surprises in the world of animated films in recent years was the phenomenal success of the Minions. The adorably cuddly but dedicated henchmen from Despicable Me found their way into children’s toys and lunchboxes worldwide. So, it’s only natural that Universal saw fit to spin them off into their own feature film, Minions. But, as viewers have learned from a generation of films based on Saturday Night Live skits, what is hilarious in seven-minute doses doesn’t always hold up well when expanded to a feature length film.


Although the animators from Illumination Entertainment were careful to draw a number of different types of Minions—some with one eye and some with two, some tall and thin and some short and squat and so on—they really never stood out as individuals. They were all incessantly cheerful, somewhat dense, and they conversed in a language that was about 25 percent English and the rest all sorts of gibberish. As for their comedy, it might best be characterized as akin to watching the 300 yellow Stooges.


Co-directors Pierre Coffin (who also voices the Minions) and Kyle Balda knew better than to mess with success in the Minions’ feature film, so the guys are pretty much the same as before. He also knew he needed some semblance of a plot and a manageable set of characters, so the movie has a storyline that, after a prologue narrated by Geoffrey Rush traced the history of the Minions, landed them in exile in a bitterly cold Arctic realm. Three Minions, Kevin, Stuart, and Bob are dispatched to find a new evil master to serve and wind up eventually in New York in 1968.


There, they find what may be the solution to their problem, when they learn of Villain-Con, a convention in pre-Disney (and pre-Universal) Orlando for evil doers the world over to hone their skills and make new connections. The star attraction at Villain-con is Scarlet Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock), the world’s greatest supervillain, who is recruiting new henchmen.


Somehow, the Minions get the job and are whisked off by Scarlet and her husband Herb (Jon Hamm) to England, where they are given their assignment: to steal the crown of Queen Elizabeth (Jennifer Saunders). Again, they manage to do so and even manage to clear the way for Scarlet to become the new Queen. But, a supervillain wouldn’t be a supervillain without a double cross or two, and Scarlett pulls the plug on the somewhat trusting Minions and gives them an up close and personal view of the royal dungeon. So, the Minions, who previously found themselves serving the forces of Evil, wind up being the only hope for the monarchy.


Minions is one of the many animated films nowadays that provides the youngsters in the audience with a long (too long for adults), mayhem-filled set piece. Adults will enjoy the soundtrack stuffed full of 60’s rock tunes and featuring renditions of “Hey Hey, We’re the Minions” and “Hair” in Minionese and lots of other songs by the original artists. And, let’s face it, the slapstick humor works far better when it’s adorably cute Minions slapping each other around than Moe, Larry, and Curly doing so.


Where Minions really goes off track however, is in its human characters, specifically the supervillains. Since the sole purpose of the Minions is to serve a villain, the villain should be pretty spectacular, or at least have some memorable traits. At first glance, the idea of a woman in the highly sexist 60’s being the world’s greatest villain (a la Modesty Blaise) has great comic potential, but Scarlet is never more than serviceably generic. She does talk about why she wants to be Queen, but it’s all routine stuff. Nor is Herb much better. I’m guessing that the script originally envisioned them as a pair like Frank and Claire Underwood on House of Cards, but instead, they’re not even Sonny and Cher.


Part of the problem stems from the vocals. Both Bullock and Hamm use flat, Midwestern accents without any distinctive characteristics. Vocalizations in animated films usually work best when the characters have a distinctive sound to them, one of the reasons why Mel Blanc stayed so busy for so many years and people still recognize Bugs, Daffy, Elmer, and the rest just from their voices. Here, one would be hard pressed to identify Herb and Scarlet from their voices, or, indeed, from any distinguishing characteristics. They are the epitome of generic.


And the word generic also describes the Minions themselves. Despite the time spent with Stuart, Kevin, and Bob, they only manage to feel like half-formed characters, more notable for their accessories (Stuart has a guitar and Bob carries a teddy bear) that anything else. Even the Three Stooges managed more distinctive personalities than these three guys (not to mention the hundreds of other Minions who periodically show up in the movie) do.


Ironically, the Minions’ strength is collective. Individually, none of them are that distinctive, but put them all together and the results are unlike anything seen in animated movies. They are the composite sidekick, whose humor and charm results from how essentially similar they all are, performing as parts of an wonderfully lovable, dysfunctional whole. They are technically evil, but in such an innocent and whole heartedly enthusiastic way (and it helps that their various masters are never shown doing anything really repulsive) that neither the children in the target audience or adults can dislike them.


It’s easy to be critical about Minions. It not nearly as easy to be critical about the Minions and that’s the point. No matter how bland the other characters are or how lame the action sequences are, at some point, the focus comes back to the Minions themselves, not as Kevin, Stuart, and Bob but as their collective selves, and that collective is enormously likable. Although the box office success of this movie virtually ensures more Minions to come (The Minions’ Christmas Carol seems almost too easy), hopefully the next time, the film makers can get the rest of the film up to the “stars’” absurdly inspired level.

Read other reviews of Minions:


Minions (2015) on IMDb