In the current crop of follow-up films brought back to the screen by popular demand, few will delight 7-year-olds like “Minions.”
The appeal of these deferential little yellow creatures, looking like Twinkies cross-bred with gelatin pill capsules, helped push the “Despicable Me” franchise to an unprecedented level of adorableness. And a worldwide box office take beyond $1 billion.
What makes them a phenomenon with grade-schoolers? I think it’s the infantilized sense of humor, babbling Euro-gibberish and portraits of most adults as pushy supervisors, like the first two films’ evil villain Gru. It’s funny because it’s true!
Pierre Coffin, the co-director of the earlier installments, returns to the helm (this time partnering with Kyle Balda, who did the four-minute Minions short “Banana” in 2010). Here we begin before the beginning, as a flashback under the opening credits shows us how single-celled larvae over millions of years evolved into land-dwelling creatures of impish idiocy.
Geoffrey Rush narrates the prologue, demonstrating how the ever-obedient Minions were programmed to find the most wicked master to serve. They progress quickly from a T-Rex to an Egyptian pharaoh, Dracula and Napoleon, each of whom they accidentally erase before scuttling off to locate a successor. Rush’s silver throat, the cleverly designed action sequences and the choice to use the Turtles’ gem “Happy Together” to frame the throwaway gags quickly demonstrate the care brought to the film’s fundamental design.
“Minions” is deliberately silly – it makes Pixar’s intelligent “Inside Out” look like a TED Talk – but it is never shoddy.
Quickly scampering off to the safety of an Arctic cave, the Minions fail to assist scoundrels from recent centuries (which would have been awkward). They suffer a collective case of the blahs that stirs a Minion named Kevin to search for an atrocious new leader.
Joining him on the quest are Stuart, a bit of a young rebel, and happy, hapless Bob. It is 1968 by the time they arrive in the United States, which the film recognizes as a high-water mark for pop music and ambitious villains. Why else would the first thing they see in New York City be a “Nixon for President” poster?
The trio follows an all-American family of robbers (the mom and dad nicely voiced by Allison Janney and Michael Keaton) to a Florida villains convention, where they are recruited as servants of Scarlet Overkill (played with less oomph than one expects from Sandra Bullock).
As the world’s first female supervillain, she plans to steal Queen Elizabeth’s crown jewels in London. In case that’s not clear, a title notes that they have arrived at “The Tower of London – London.”
As you would expect, the script – there is one, sort of – feels as if it was written to fill the blanks in a Mad Libs story. It’s here in the second half that the film wanders, trying to squeeze laughs out of antique jokes about pubs, bowler hats, the queen’s costumed yeoman guards and swinging British rock.
It’s great to hear the Who’s “My Generation” and the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” but will any child understand the gag when the Minions pop up at Abbey Road and see four well-shod pedestrians march across the crosswalk? Hopefully the greatest-hits soundtrack and an opening that features a Minions chorus yodeling the Universal Studios fanfare will retire the worldwide kids’ obsession with songs from “Frozen.”
Coffin, who provides much of the Minions’ endless chatter, makes a rollicking joyride out of their oddball Esperanto, where we encounter fractured Spanish, “mazel tov,” “kumbaya” and, whenever they encounter their favorite fruit, endless cheers of “Banana!” The target demographic will undoubtedly go bananas, too.