As an adult, I find that the experience of watching "Minions", the new prequel to "Despicable Me", must be similar to what most women experience when watching a Three Stooges comedy.
When you watch "Minions", in addition to the obvious comparison between the two (both have three members, a 'smart' one and two meatheads), it becomes clear pretty early on that you are viewing an animated film geared almost exclusively for little kids. The humor is broad, filled with slapstick, pretty juvenile. The key to a really successful animated film, something like Pixar's newest "Inside Out", is to create a film for both young and old. The parents who have to take the young people to the theater need something to amuse and occupy them as well. When the film has nothing for them, it becomes a trial to sit through and an obligation, sapping all joy out of the experience.
It is difficult to achieve this balance. Pixar universally does this well. Disney is pretty good. The other studios are more hit and miss.
Much like a woman watching a Three Stooges short, most adults just won't enjoy this film as much. "Minions" is the Three Stooges compared to any Pixar film. It's funny, sure. But it's no classic.
From the birth of time, the Minions have latched onto the meanest, baddest creature around. They follow a T-Rex, Dracula, others, always inadvertently contributing to their villainous leader's demise. After a long period of seclusion in the frozen tundra, Kevin decides to lead an expedition to help them find a new overlord to serve. He takes Stuart and Bob and they head out, eventually landing in 1968 New York. They quickly learn about Villain-Con happening in Orlando and hitchhike there, catching a ride with the Nelson family (Allison Janney and Michael Keaton are the voices of the parents). The biggest, baddest villain of all, Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock) is looking for a new henchman and realizes Kevin, Stuart and Bob are just the ticket. She and her husband, Herb (Jon Hamm) take them back to England where she wants to steal the monarchy, literally, by taking the Crown Jewels. But Queen Elizabeth (Jennifer Saunders) will not sit idly by.
Co-directed by Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin ("Despicable Me") and written by Brian Lynch ("Hop", "Puss In Boots"), "Minions" has some moments of slapstick joy, but the full movie suffers from a couple of problems that make it anything but a classic.
Kevin, Stuart and Bob are cute and expressive, but their gobbledygook dialog doesn't really help to convey enough about what they are feeling or doing. Because of this, they seem even more slapstick, even more Stooge-like. To compensate for this, the filmmakers enlist Geoffrey Rush to provide narration. This works to a certain degree, more because his over formal interpretation of a proper English dialect is at odds with all of the crazy slapstick action happening. As Rush continues to narrate, his words would seem more at place during a retelling of "Pride and Prejudice", yet we are watching the little yellow minions run around New York, Orlando and London.
The addition of Orlando is a nice touch. Because they arrive pre-Disney World, the area is basically a swamp, not the family wonderland we know today. And because Universal is the studio behind this film, they are basically giving a little wink and nudge to the area Universal Studios calls home.
Because everything in "Minions" happens 'B.G.' (Before Gru - the villainous character in the "Despicable Me" movies), we are introduced to Scarlett Overkill, billed as the Baddest of the Bad - most of this is her hyperbole. Voiced by Sandra Bullock, Scarlett is a villain with a truly wicked plan and some elaborate clothes. From early childhood, she has always wanted to be the Queen of England, so she naturally decides the only way to achieve this goal is to steal the monarchy. Scarlett has the requisite bouffant. And each of her red dresses has the ability to become mobile (with wings, engines, jet propulsion) and is armed to the hilt (with lasers, lava guns, the like). Bullock is clearly having a lot of fun, and the animation is imagined as a slightly exaggerated version of what Bullock would actually look like in character.
But Bullock is lacking something in her portrayal - she seems a little underwhelming to be the Baddest of the Bad. She doesn't seem to be smart enough or self-aware enough somehow. Throughout, the Minions seem to stumble into one situation after another, always thwarting Scarlett's plans. Yet, she continues to follow them. Somehow, Gru always seems to move beyond the constant Minion-induced setbacks because he has another plan standing by. Scarlett seems to be sidelined by the antics of the Minions and only becomes involved again when they inadvertently make it possible for her.
While Bullock is good, this seems to be an example of casting an A-List star in an animated film simply because they are an A-List star. The producers and studio want the star power. Bullock is good, but she doesn't bring anything remarkable to the character, anything particularly memorable. You really want Scarlett to be the next Cruella De Vil and what she is more like is the Stepmother in "Cinderella". Good, but the evil needs to be amped up.
Jon Hamm voices Herb and he gives the character a unique and interesting voice different from his own. I actually didn't recognize it was Hamm doing the voice of Herb. I knew Hamm was in the film, but the connection didn't click until I saw his name in the end credits.
Because the majority of the film is set in the late 60s, everyone has the hair and clothing of the period. This works particularly well for Herb who seems to be styled to resemble the Beatles or the Rolling Stones from this period. He is tall, lanky and wears striped suits, his hair a mop.
Michael Keaton and Allison Janney are the Nelsons, a mom and dad taking their entire family to Villain-Con, who are only too happy to give the little Minions a ride. The Nelsons are easily the funniest human characters in the film. They add a little element of surprise before they take a backseat to all of the slapstick and almost disappear, popping up very sporadically throughout.
Steve Coogan also pipes up as two supporting characters. While both are funny, each is too brief to be memorable.
The key problem with "Minions" seems to be in the balance. I realize the film is about the little yellow guys, but they are best experienced in small doses and this is why "Despicable Me" works better. Gru was more involved in the story, more integral to all of the shenanigans. In "Minions", there are long sequences of slapstick involving Kevin, Stuart and Bob and these seem to go on for a long time, with little interaction from the other cast. A chase through London is particularly long and even a little boring - it takes a lot of work for a chase to make a film seem slow, but somehow that is what happens. The highlight of this bit is when Queen Elizabeth (Saunders) begins to fight back, showing some pluck. But these sequences are too long and that allows for less time from the voice actors who help to create laughs and keep things moving along.
As soon as they arrive in New York, Kevin, Stuart and Bob enter a large department store and get stranded after it closes. This whole sequence, while mildly amusing, ultimately serves the purpose of introducing Villain-Con to the little fellows. The actual method by which this is done makes about as much sense as anything else, so it could have been done in a much quicker fashion, moving the story along. The whole department store sequence seems like an idea for a stand-alone short that was incorporated poorly into the overall film. It seems a lot out of place.
Also, the reason for Kevin, Stuart and Bob's expedition is because the entire group of Minions is feeling depressed and lackluster without a villain to serve. As the three progress towards civilization and Scarlett, we revisit the rest of the group in their snowy tundra. And watch them act depressed and listless. These moments are, initially, amusing, but we keep coming back to them and they quickly wear thin.
I mean who wants to watch depressed and listless cartoon characters? And this is the second animated feature in two months to feature such characters. But here, they just seem slow and uninteresting.
"Minions" has a huge opening weekend, coming in behind "Shrek the Third", with the second highest opening weekend of an animated film. The film has laughs but the marketing campaign created this success. The little guys are everywhere and it is easy to see their appeal with children. It's just a shame that a film that is just okay is going to outperform "Inside Out", Pixar's animated film. "Inside Out" is great.
There are more "Minions" on the way. "Minions 2" and "Despicable Me 3" are already in the works.