Despicable Me was one of those films that took me by surprise. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the film, having gotten a rather mediocre vibe from the trailers. Basically, I didn’t think it would be much good — just another so-so entry in the animated cannon. But then magic happened and I was won over by Gru’s carefully crafted transformation from incredibly despicable (yet lovable) villain to devoted father and hero to his adopted little girls. One of the reasons for the film’s success were Gru’s yellow pill-shaped creatures in blue overall’s who meant well, but were crazily prone to accidents and were far more cute and fun than nefarious. The little guys, known as minions, were so popular, they eventually became Illumination Entertainment’s (the animated studio behind the Despicable franchise) mascots. It was only a matter of time before the little runts got their own movie. But is Minions a smashing success story, or is it missing something important in its formula?
As everyone probably knows by now, Minions is a prequel exploring the minions’s roots prior to becoming Gru’s lovable lackeys. Who are they? Where did they come from? How many villainous masters did they follow (and eventually kill in unfortunate mishaps)? These basic (albeit, non-essential) questions are answered when we meet the minions as some sort of protozoa-type amoebas trading masters like they were going out of style (and mostly because a bigger and fiercer fish would eat their previous master), eventually evolving to walk on land to find the biggest, meanest master to serve. After spending centuries trying to find the right fit, they find themselves exiled to a snow-riddled cave where they spend their time building a community and having fun. But because they have no purpose without the ability to serve a master, they quickly become despondent. It’s then up to Kevin (voiced, as all minions are, by Pierre Coffin) to head out and find them a rockin’ villain. Joining him are the reluctant Stewart and the excited Bob, who venture out into the big, wide world of adventure.
All of this happens in a swift twenty minutes or so, all narrated by Geoffrey Rush. But I can’t help but wonder if it would have been more engaging had we been allowed to invest ourselves in the plight of the minions without being told what was happening. Yeah, the minions speak in a smorgasbord of different languages, but there are creative ways to get the information across without a narrator (most of which are already evident), and I feel I would have been able to relate to the minions more deeply if I was forced to pay more attention to what was happening. One reason I believe that is because the narration does end once the minions hit New York City, and there’s no denying the film becomes much more enchanting at that point.
It’s at this point that the trio hitch a ride to Orlando (with a family of villains who definitely needed more screen time than they were allowed) for the annual Villain-Con, a terrific parody on conventions that also isn’t allowed much time to breathe, but will most definitely need a couple of viewings to catch all of the details littered throughout. It’s at the convention that the minions are introduced to Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock), the supposed queen of villainy who wants to become the actual Queen of England. To help achieve this goal, Scarlett ignites a contest for the chance to become her new minions, a challenge that Kevin, Bob and Stewart will inevitably win in gloriously accidental fashion. Appropriate (and some not so appropriate) shenanigans ensue as they group is whisked off to England.
While there is some terrifically clever laughs and situations that will almost certainly go over the heads of most kids (but will remain hilarious because of the joviality of the minions), I couldn’t help but feel something was missing. I wanted to like Minions much more than I actually did, partially because, as is normal for a lot of films these days, the best jokes were already part of the trailer, so if you’ve seen that (and unless you’ve been hiding under a rock the past year, you have), there aren’t many more surprises awaiting you. However, after the movie was over, it dawned on me that the root of my overall disappointment was because of one glaring omission — Gru and his daughters. That relationship is the heart and soul of Despicable Me, so when the filmmakers are forced to remove that element, we’re left with little more than the coincidental and accidental nature of the minions themselves. This immature aspect of their characters certainly works in small doses, pulling off tremendous laughs when done in reservation, but when given the spotlight, those jokes that are at first insanely endearing become a bit repetitive.
I don’t think it would have been quite as bad had the human characters been given the same care that Gru and his family were provided. Scarlett turns out to be a typical, cliché-riddled supervillain who is more bark than bite, failing to give the film any power. Her husband (Jon Hamm) is also a bit of a letdown, throwing out some decent quips that add nothing to the soul of the film. They both end up as mere plot devices, whereas Gru and his girls gave us a reason to care for what happened throughout the film. Do I care what happens to Kevin, Stewart and Bob? Of course; I’d hate to see anything bad happen to them, and for the most part, their adventures can be quite fun, especially when Kevin turns into a Godzilla-sized minion, or when Bob fortuitously pulls the famed sword from the stone. But other than the small doses of juice these events add to the proceedings, the film as a whole comes off as a silly, passive form of entertainment rather than an engrossing piece of cinema. Where what was once surprisingly giddy fun becomes an overdose of craziness that doesn’t allow for the same joy I got when the stars were simply supporting players in a much larger world.
My Grade: B+
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