Struggling to come up with a reason for its sidekick characters to have their own adventure, Minions proves far too much of a little thing. After two outings as the henchmen to evil super-villain Gru (Steve Carell) in the Despicable Me franchise, the short, stubby, giant-eyed, yellow-bodied Minions are given a backstory of a distinctly dreary nature in directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin’s rambunctious film. Their origins, as it turns out, are as dull as their escapades are wearisome, in large part because the Minions are, by design, one-joke characters incapable of supporting the thousands of gags, pratfalls, one-liners, and other assorted absurdities that crowd the screen for the proceedings’ 90 minutes. Try as they might, they can’t compensate for the lameness of this prequel’s countless pranks, nor for the almost immediate impression that they’re small fries ill-suited for a stand-alone solo effort.
What Minions surely doesn’t lack is energy. Set to the good-natured narration of Geoffrey Rush, Universal’s animated film opens with a credits sequence that explicates how, since the dawn of time, the Minions have functioned as gleeful second bananas, hitching their rides to the fortunes of the fiercest bad guy around. That genetic imperative meant they rode side by side with the T. rex and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Napoleon (among others), and in each instance, their buffoonery was ultimately the cause of their master’s demise. Theirs is a nomadic life of constant job-hunting, though after their falling out with the aforementioned French emperor, they find themselves adrift, living a boss-less life in a snowy mountain cave.
Unwilling to allow his fellow yellow guys to waste away due to a lack of purpose, intrepid Minion Kevin sets out—with the assistance of enthusiastic but idiotic Bob and sarcastic cyclops Stuart—to find the clan a new employer. That search leads first to 1968 New York and then, thanks to a TV commercial, to Orlando. In one of many fleetingly amusing touches, that future Disney World home is still a swampland in Minions, albeit also the site where, underground, millions of nefarious folks congregate for the annual Villain Con. It’s there that Kevin, Stuart and Bob find their apparent dream boss in the form of world-famous Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock), a brunette beauty in a rocket-powered red dress (and with a sideburned mod husband voiced by Jon Hamm) who winds up hiring the trio to steal the Queen of England’s crown.
Bullock voices Scarlett with the type of for-the-cameras celebrity sweetness that masks demented nastiness, her endearing coos as laced with venom as are her outright threats. Unfortunately, Minions does nothing with Scarlett, whose quest for the English throne stems from some vague childhood desire, and whose evil comes across as so cartoony as to barely resonate at all. The same holds for the film’s treatment of its pint-sized protagonists, who spout an endless stream of their trademark gibberish, smack themselves silly into various objects, and giggle with uncontrollable fervor. Conceived as peripheral punchlines rather than as oddball centers of attention, the Minions come across as eternally amused by private jokes to which we’re not wholly privy.
Not helping matters is that their maiden starring vehicle is a superficial affair that— despite bouncy, bright, colorful animation—contains none of the emotional familial-identity undercurrents found in the Despicable Me films. Rather, it’s just an incessantly zany adventure full of hectic chase sequences, each less important, or funny, than the last. Ostensibly aware that its main characters are one-dimensional, Minions doesn’t even assume a pretense of being about anything at all. Instead, it chooses to merely indulge in as much rat-a-tat goofiness as it can possibly muster, even as its ADD-afflicted set pieces—which come to concern the threesome wielding high-tech gadgets (a lava gun, a hypnotizing hat), being tortured in a medieval dungeon, and racing through downtown (and underground) London— routinely fall flat.
A kids’ film need not strive for profundity à la Inside Out; making audiences laugh is reason enough to exist. But devoid of substance and inspired silliness, and punctuated by a host of ’60s-era shout-outs to the likes of the Beatles and the Monkeys that will barely appease adult chaperones, Minions winds up residing in a passable-at-best middle ground that’s already overpopulated by scores of virtually identical diversions.
Directors: Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin
Writer: Brian Lynch
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Steve Carell, Geoffrey Rush, Pierre Coffin, Steve Coogan, Jon Hamm, Allison Janney, Michael Keaton
Release Date: July 10, 2015