'Minions': Film Review

Meh-nions, more like.

Sandra Bullock voices the new villain in this 'Despicable Me' prequel of sorts.

The dungarees- and goggles-wearing yellow sidekicks from the two Despicable Me films are upgraded to leading-minion status in the appropriately titled Minions, from directors Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda.

After switching 'round the formula used in the previous films, in which the Steve Carell-voiced villain was cast as the improbable lead, this Swinging London-set prequel goes back to a more classically structured setup, in which the bad guy — or rather, bad girl, voiced by a workmanlike Sandra Bullock — is the antagonist, while the mostly mumbling heroes take center stage.

Unfortunately, this robs the film of much of what made its predecessors stand out, with the story lacking a clear narrative and emotional throughline to connect all of the film’s set pieces.

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That said, the film's slapsticky gags are often amusing, and this franchise, which has turned out quality animated films on relatively small budgets (the first two were produced for under $78 million each), has built up a lot of audience goodwill, with Despicable Me 2 making $970 million worldwide. This at least bodes well for this film’s opening weekend, though longer-term prospects seem more uncertain.

Minions premiered at France's Annecy International Animated Film Festival and opens in several territories overseas before its U.S. bow on July 10.

The film, written by Brian Lynch, stars the three minions seen auditioning during the end credits of Despicable Me 2: Kevin, the leader of the gang; overeager and heterochromic Bob, who’s still a child (or at least shorter than the others and always in need of a toy or pet); and one-eyed Stuart, who didn’t exactly volunteer for the job but is taken along on Kevin’s expedition, anyway. All three are voiced by Coffin, who co-directed the first two films as well. Balda previously co-directed The Lorax together with Chris Renaud, Coffin’s helming colleague on the first two Despicable films who here acts as an executive producer and also provides some of the voices.

As narrator Geoffrey Rush explains during the film’s busy opening sequence, minions have been around for much longer than man, eagerly serving baddies wherever they can find them. Past masters include a T. rex, an evil pharaoh, Dracula — whose 357th birthday celebration, thrown by the minions, comes to a predictably disastrous end when they throw open the curtains during the day — and Napoleon.

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But since they’re in the habit of not doing things quite the way they should be done — and wreaking amusing havoc in the process — the minions end up exiled in Antarctica after Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign (how this is possible geographically is never explained). After living in a cave for a few centuries, the minions become a severely depressed species — until Kevin finally decides to venture out into the world again to look for a new villain to serve, and he takes Bob and Stuart on a trip to 1968 New York, where they — until then dressed in sheepskins for warmth — find their now-iconic denim dungarees in a throwaway moment that isn’t quite as impactful as the film wants it to be.

Early shenanigans of the minions — whose high-pitched gibberish has taken on a more Latin slant here, often sounding like a vague mix of Spanish, Italian and French, with the occasional English word thrown in — include watching The Dating Game, with the show amusingly featuring three male candidates also called Bob, Kevin and Stuart. The next day, the trio hitchhike to Orlando, Fla., in a car with a seemingly all-American clan that turns out to be a family of bank robbers (the parents are voiced by Michael Keaton and the always-delicious Allison Janney, both in glorified cameos more than actual supporting roles).

It turns out they all are headed for Villain-Con, a secret gathering of baddies where the "world’s first female supervillain," Scarlett Overkill (Bullock), puts on a show to find new henchmen. No points for guessing who’ll get the job.

The long list of characters and locations introduced in the first half-hour — with the latter including Egypt, Transylvania, Russia, the South Pole, New York and Orlando — already suggests how disjointed the film is on a purely narrative level, with each scene seemingly conceived individually rather than as part of a whole film, although as stand-alone items, most of them have some charm and offer some chuckles. Particularly funny are: a bedtime story, animated to look like stop-motion, in which the minions are cast as the Three Little Pigs; and a particularly unenthusiastic soccer game back in Antarctica that underlines how bored and depressed the minion populace really is.

Speaking of depression, it seems that the sole quest of Kevin and his buddies — who finally end up in London for the remainder of the film, thanks to Overkill and her husband, Herb (Jon Hamm), who want to steal the crown of Queen Elizabeth (voiced with haughty perfection by Jennifer Saunders) — doesn’t amount to much more than trying to avoid having the entire minions species succumb to gloominess and despair at the South Pole.

While certainly different from that hoary race-to-save-the-world cliche, it is simultaneously a somewhat odd common goal to work toward in a film aimed at families — including their youngest members. And as with in Despicable Me 2 especially, there’s a tendency to throw in some music whenever the rhythm seems to lag rather than to tinker with the actual story and characters the way one supposes Pixar keeps doing until it gets it right.

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The first two features in the series, which both were scripted by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, at least had central relationships that evolved over the course of the film, as Carell’s much-missed unsociable baddie, Mr. Gru, learned to become a father to three orphan girls (film one) or a potential romantic partner (part deux), with the fact that the villain was also the protagonist adding something fresh to otherwise-familiar character and plot developments.

What’s missing in Lynch’s screenplay is a similar kind of arc on which to peg all the individual sequences, as the minions — like the proper sidekicks they are — never really learn or change, always getting caught in variations of the same scenario. Add to that the fact that Overkill is a straightforward antagonist, and it feels like this particular collection of scenes could’ve just as well been 20 — or 200 — minutes long. (Incidentally, one can only wonder how much more interesting the story would’ve been from Overkill’s point of view; as it is, she just sort of drifts in and out of the story when needed.)

Though the film doesn’t go much beyond the usual visual chestnuts once in London — with lots of tea-drinking, scones-eating and people wearing bowler hats or decked out in hippie attire (this is the '60s, after all) — what is new is a kind of photo-realism in the cityscape backdrops, which are much more detailed and realistic here than in previous outings. However, there are no particular scenes in which the use of 3D adds much, a la the roller-coaster and underwater car rides in the preceding films.

Instead of the peppy, hip-hop infused songs by Pharrell Williams, the soundtrack here is filled with 1960s ditties, including work by The Rolling Stones, The Turtles, The Doors, The Kinks and Donovan’s "Mellow Yellow," which is just about the perfect description of this prequel of sorts.

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Production company: Illumination Entertainment

Cast: Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Allison Janney, Michael Keaton, Geoffrey Rush, Jennifer Saunders, Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud

Directors: Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin

Screenplay: Brian Lynch

Producers: Christopher Meledandri, Janet Healy

Executive producer: Chris Renaud

Editor: Claire Dodgson

Music: Heitor Pereira

Rated PG, 91 minutes