The cutely devious henchmen of supervillain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) from 2010's "Despicable Me
" and 2013's "Despicable Me 2
" didn't speak much more than gibberish and were treated strictly as supporting comic relief, but they were the runaway hits of said animated features. The prospect of such minor, interchangeably one-note characters getting their very own movie didn't sound promising in concept, but in "Minions," returning helmer Pierre Coffin and co-director Kyle Balda (2012's "The Lorax
") have found an inventive way to use them to their strengths. Slight but wholly diverting for 91 minutes, the film works as a spin-off, a prequel, and a groovy triptych through 1960s culture.
The yellow, bespectacled title creatures have been around, it turns out, since the dawn of intelligent life on the planet. Their goal: to serve and devote themselves to the baddest, most despicable masters around. Through the ages, their ill-fated bosses have ranged from a dinosaur, to a caveman, to Dracula himself, whom they learned the hard way did not take kindly to light. Feeling lonely and without purpose, Bob, Kevin and Stuart (all voiced by Pierre Coffin) leave behind their tribe to search for the most evil soul they can find. The year is 1968, and after a quick jaunt in New York City the trio of minions set out for the International Villain-Con being held in Orlando. It is here that they meet Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), the world's first female supervillain, and get swept away to her England castle lair. Scarlet hands the minions one simple mission to prove to her they are worthy of joining her criminal empire: steal Queen Elizabeth's crown so that she may at last rule the land.
The minions in "Minions" are not the most dynamic of cinematic figures. They speak in their own language sans subtitles, they typically bumble about, and their individual development is relegated to what narrator Geoffrey Rush (2010's "The King's Speech
") tells the audience. Without a lot of room to explore who they are beyond their surfaces, the film excels in their interactions with their surroundings and the retro time period in which they find themselves. Children will go mad over the zaniness that naturally has come with the minions getting their own movie, but it is older viewers who will be able to appreciate the picture's array of in-jokes and 1960s-specific references. Beyond the carefully chosen, refreshingly eclectic selection of tunes on the soundtrack from, among others, The Who, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and The Turtles, there are gags involving President Richard Nixon, a pre-Disneyfied Orlando, The Beatles' "Abbey Road" album cover, and Broadway musical "Hair." No doubt inspired by the silent-film slapsticks of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Coffin and Balda rely on physical humor, comedic timing and the purity of absurd situations to carry the "pill-shaped miracle workers" from scene to scene.
Viewing the history of the world through the minions' curious eyes makes for a swirlingly bouncy prologue. As the readily simplistic story proper sets in, there is little chance to locate an underlying emotional core. This is nothing but a loopy lark, and that includes villainess Scarlet Overkill, whose badnessunlike Gru's in the "Despicable Me
" moviesis far from a stepping stone to redemption. In contrast, Scarlet is portrayed as all rotten, albeit amusingly, her grim spin on the "Three Little Pigs" fairy tale more a warning to her new henchmen than a happily-ever-after bedtime story. Sandra Bullock (2013's "Gravity
") has too warm a voice to thoroughly sell Scarlet's wicked ways, but she does bring a colorful lightheartedness to the role that allows her to be oddly endearing even when she is shooting missiles out of her dress. The agreeable supporting playersScarlet's quirky, not-all-nefarious husband Herb (John Hamm), and a family led by Walter (Michael Keaton) and Madge Nelson (Allison Janney) who kindly pick up the hitchhiking minions before nonchalantly heading off to rob a bankare undernourished by the screenplay, their roles failing to match their full potential.
"Minions" is energetically paced, splashily animated, and goes down easily. That it doesn't annoy is a particularly notable achievement; for all of the fans the minions have, these peculiar little suckers have a tendency to quickly wear out their welcome. By using them as wide-eyed witnesses to their own fish-out-of-water misadventures in a nostalgic age gone by, directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin shrewdly play to knowing adults as well as kids who stand to be exposed for one of the first times to an era they know nothing about. "Minions" is a frothy family comedy, no more and no less. It may not endure the way the best animated films do, but as an answer to where these cheerful yellow servants of villainy come from and how they ultimately find future master Gru, it proves a good deal more winning than most will be expecting.