The 'Minions' are on their own this time ... and even they're not so keen on the idea
Minions Universal Pictures
Director: Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin
Screenplay: Brian Lynch
Starring: The voices of Pierre Coffin, Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney and Jennifer Saunders
Rated PG / 1 hour, 31 minutes
July 10, 2015
(out of four)
We've all seen it. A memorable supporting character - particularly one defined by his or her eccentricities - that doesn't have the same effect once elevated to center stage. Or a great supporting actor that utterly fails to transition to leading roles. Generally speaking, it's just a simple miscalculation - a flawed gauge of what made the character or performer thrive in the first place.
It comes down to determining whether something is a main course, a side dish, or a garnish. Take tomatoes, for example. Tomatoes are great. They're great in pasta, and on sandwiches, and in salads, and on burgers, and especially in (or as) soup. But no one just grabs a tomato and bites into it. Or has a bowl of tomatoes for dinner. Don't even try to tell me you enjoy eating tomatoes by themselves. You're probably lying, and if not, you disgust me. In any case, this is the long way of saying that Despicable Me's ever-popular Minions are like the tomatoes of movie characters. Great on the side, but they can't carry the whole show.
It's a common impulse (and common error) in movies and television to try to exploit a popular entity as much as possible, even when it seems like a fundamentally bad idea from the get-go. Not that this is news, but there's something to be said for knowing your role. Once that changes, your entire dynamic - your entire effect - changes with it. The Lone Gunmen were a brilliant recurring trio on The X-Files, but their own show was awful, and a complete misunderstanding of why those characters worked the way they did. Norm was my favorite character on Cheers, but I can't imagine a Norm-centric spinoff would have been anything but a disaster. Ditto The Office's proposed Dwight Schrute spinoff.
I realize I'm primarily using TV examples in a movie review, so ... how about the fact that the Ewoks got their own standalone movie?
To be fair, there are successful examples that proved my (and others') expectations unequivocally wrong. Last year's Penguins of Madagascar, for one. Or even more recently, the inexplicably great Better Call Saul (which seemed, on its face, like a doomed idea). Then again, that show redefined/re-envisioned our understanding of Saul Goodman as a character. The Minions in Minions, on the other hand, are exactly the same as they were before, only now they're in the role of protagonists instead of auxiliary comic relief. The filmmakers - directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin (who also voices all of the Minions) and writer Brian Lynch - do make some smart decisions with them. They allow the Minions to still be largely passive, reactive characters; they think they're driving the action when actually, for the most part, they're just getting swept along for the ride. The Minions are at their best when they're just absurd (and, crucially, unexplained) creatures, reacting to the world around them with childlike enthusiasm and infantile behavior. In the film's standout moments, they get to do just that.
But, now that they're the featured players in a feature film, they've been given (admittedly loose) emotional arcs and an actual narrative to follow, which doesn't play to their strengths. They're great at punctuating moments; it's hard to punctuate an entire story with the same impact. We get a whole narrated backstory detailing their existence throughout history - serving one evil character after another, from dinosaurs to vampires to tyrants - leading up to the dead-end in which they've found themselves before setting sail for America in the late 1960s.
Even the Minions seem to know they don't belong in the spotlight. This whole movie is about their collective search for a (villainous) master to serve - a lead character, if you will, that will allow them to move back to their natural, comfortable supporting roles - which we know will invariably (in this movie or another) lead them to Gru's doorstep. The story is such a perfect metaphor for the movie's own inherent problem that I'm rather ashamed I didn't notice it right away. It couldn't be more appropriate.
The nail in the film's coffin is that nobody the Minions cross paths with - neither supervillain Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock), nor her weapon-inventing husband Herb (Jon Hamm), nor the various criminals and royals that populate the rest of this animated world - is able to make up the difference. Too often, the Minions are on their own, forced to keep a story moving that doesn't have anywhere in particular to go. Scarlett - who prides herself on being the world's first female supervillain - seems like the biggest missed opportunity. If the film had fleshed her out and even let her do the story's heavy lifting, the title characters may have been right at home. Instead, too often they don't have much to react to, or play off of. This is a movie badly in need of despicable Gru, or someone like him.