'Henchmen': Film Review

Courtesy of BRON Studios
Chintzy but inoffensive kids' stuff.

Thomas Middleditch and James Marsden lead an all-star cast in Adam Wood's supervillain-themed 'toon.

Some evil geniuses have tailor-made crews of Minions to do their bidding; others have to hire their help the old-fashioned way. Imagining the working-class frustrations of a heroes-and-villains world, Adam Wood's Henchmen centers on a kid who, until he can realize his dreams of evil grandeur, has to pay his dues by mopping up other bad guys' messes. A voice cast packed with comic talent signed up for this expansion of Wood's 2014 short Henchmen: Ill Suited, and a trio of writers found the occasional witty aside to toss the actors' way. But it's not just superhero fatigue that makes this feature feel generic and cheap — lively enough to keep young kids occupied, but preferably while parents are doing something more interesting in the next room.

Thomas Middleditch plays Lester, an orphan who, even as a boy, wondered why the bad guys always had to lose in comic books. Now ready to enter the workforce, he heeds the call of the Union of Evil, whose Army recruitment-style ads (rendered in a more appealing visual style than the rest of the film) promise glory to henchmen-for-hire. Who will he be serving? Who knows: There's a new gimmick-driven maniac every week in this world, all living peacefully as neighbors in a hidden metropolis called, imaginatively, Supervillain City.

Sadly, Lester doesn't have the physique to qualify for a job like the one held by beefy Biff (Rob Riggle), the right-hand dude to Baron Blackout (Alfred Molina). As a Class 3 henchman (read: janitor), he's hardly on a career ladder toward his goal of true supervillaindom. (Which is an odd aim, given Lester's good-natured optimism.) He's paired with James Marsden's Hank, who urges him to pursue a more ordinary line of work. But Lester lives for the romance of comic-book action, and the script has a little fun showing us the world through his eyes. (Hey, dig that Ray of Absurd Fears, a gun that can make victims terrified of legwarmers or a platypus!)

He tries to stay out of trouble, but Lester soon finds himself trapped inside an Iron Man-style armored suit he can't take off. The suit's controlled by his emotions, so, naturally, erratic havoc ensues. Where's Meditation Man when he's needed?

While Baron Blackout (a black sheep in the community of villains) shows off a weapon that turns people to sludgy zombies, and the good-guy Friendly Force Five fail to rise to the occasion, Hank and a few buddies (including a new scientist friend played by Rosario Dawson) try to figure out how to harness Lester's new powers to save the world. It's as if they all simultaneously forgot which side of the good/bad divide their bread was buttered on.

All this is diverting enough for afternoon viewing and briskly paced, even if a couple of sequences (like a go-nowhere bit involving a ball of What-If-ium) will leave attentive audiences scratching their heads. But engaging with the action is tougher than expected given the lifeless faces on all these CG-animated characters. Overall, the cheap-looking animation meshes well with the film's aesthetic; and the design of movement, while generic, works fine. But faces, and the hair framing them, needed much more attention from animators.

It would be tough looking into so many pairs of dead eyes if not for the character-rich voices of cast members like Craig Robinson and Nathan Fillion. None of the actors does anything special here, but even agreeing to a quick soundbooth paycheck date represents a big favor to Wood's not-so-evil adventure.

Production company: Bron Animation
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment (on Tubi)
Cast: Thomas Middleditch, James Marsden, Rosario Dawson, Alfred Molina, Rob Riggle, Jane Krakowski, Craig Robinson, Nathan Fillion, Will Sasso
Director: Adam Wood
Screenwriters: Bobby Henwood, Jay D. Waxman, Adam Wood
Producers: Luke Carroll, Aaron L. Gilbert, Brenda Gilbert
Director of photography: Rav Grewal
Production designer: Bulat Iraliyev
Music: Toby Chu
Editor: Jordan Hemsley
82 minutes