The latest movie from Illumination Entertainment takes the delightfully zany and crass yellow henchmen from Despicable Me & Despicable Me 2 and gives them their own spin-off movie. Minions opening minutes survey the primordial and pre-Gru existence of these dwarven, jaundiced children, to pull a descriptor directly from the movie, and their exploits to find the biggest and baddest villain to follow.
The minions history is traced from single-celled yellow organisms to the denim overall wearing acolytes we are accustom to seeing everywhere; seriously, everywhere. From serving a T-Rex to the prehistoric neanderthals and an assorted sampler of historic baddies; the minions comedic errors and general ineptitude lead to the untimely deaths of all their masters. When one particular historical master, a Napoleon-like stand-in, is unwittingly blown to smithereens by the minions’ inability to keep a cannon aiming at the enemy, they are driven into an ice cave in what I can only assume is northern Russia. That whole scene is a great historical easter egg for anyone familiar with the Napoleonic Wars.
The minions are safe and they build a simple civilization for themselves out of the snow and ice. Left to fend for themselves they do quite well. But something is missing in their safety and comfort. The one thing they lack, and what they have always sought after as a group, is a master to serve. Aware of their waning zest for existence and their leaderless plight, one brave minion, Kevin, sets out with the timid, yet eager, Bob and the attention-seeking, ukulele playing Stuart. The three of them travel over treacherous snow, bear-infested forest, and hallucination inducing ocean to arrive in 1968 New York in search of the foremost of villains to employ their hapless services.
What transpires after our three intrepid yellow sidekicks attend VillainCon, a premise I actually thought was funny and rather clever, is largely a forgettable movie-going experience. While they eventually find their super villain to pledge their affection to, Sandra Bullock’s Scarlett Overkill, what proceeds is an inconsequential plot that serves up the normal kids movie clichés, trite and odd character motivations, a bloated score of 60’s and 70’s music, and a largely predictable ending. It’s difficult to be so harsh to my beloved minions. My kids love them and they were great and not annoying in the first movie, but these characters were originally secondary players with well-placed crudity, gibbering, and comedic stupidity. To thrust them into the primary protagonist role seems ill-advised at best and callous money-grabbing at my most cynical. The usage of their characters as the heroes even betrays the very nature of who the minions are; second bananas (pronounced BAH-NAH-NAH) to a more prominent villainous antihero.
Despite the story not being quite up to snuff, as the movie unfolds and our tiny heroes struggle, jabber, and bumble about to find their office of servitude with a capable criminal mastermind, they do reflect an aspect of our own human condition. We, like little, easily pleased devils, long to find a purpose and a place; to serve a greater good for the benefit of more than just ourselves. Something more than what we currently have; a longing for a promised home that will guarantee our security, happiness, and lasting comfort.
The lyrics to Bob Dylan’s Grammy award-winning song, “Gotta Serve Somebody”, are the perfect companion piece to a movie narrative and soundtrack already chockfull of 60’s and 70’s music from the likes of The Who, The Beatles, Donovan, and the musical Hair.
“You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
The minions only live to serve the strongest and most diabolical, not necessarily the greater good. However, if the first two movies taught us anything, it is that the minions stay loyal to Gru, even when he turns into a good, law-abiding father figure and Anti-Villain League spy. The minions might be addicted to mayhem, but the loving kindness of a Father redeems their values of loyalty and service and directs them on a more righteous path; even if they still try to occasionally blow each other up.
It is left to be seen if a good movie could ever be made of a group destined and longing to avoid being in charge, instead vowing to serve. The unfortunate reality of Minions is that straining out the gnats of truth in this movie is not a task most parents, and kids, are up to. They may surely be capable, but the sheer flatness of the narrative and lack of genuinely funny moments makes it “gas station sushi” compared to “filet mignon”, as my friend and colleague Fizz put it in his summation of Minions.
In fact, Jackson Cuidon at Christianity Today even questions if the 92 minute running time of Minions is irredeemable, and sitting in your living room on your iPhone as a family might be time better spent. While his gloves off approach is hilarious and thought provoking, his questions for regarding the point of seeing movies are helpful:
“What does it mean, when you go to the movies with your family? Is it supposed to be something you can talk about together? Or a way for everyone to all escape to the same place, at the same time?
Sometimes, after re-packing into the car, while slurping down the last of residual fountain drinks, do you talk about what you liked about the movie? What you didn’t? What could be different? Or do you just re-hash what parts you found funny?”
I talked to a mom over the weekend that said she saw the movie with her kids. I asked her what she thought about the movie and what her kids thought. While her answers about talking to the kids about not being evil were slightly misguided, although she might be on to something as far as who we serve, I was encouraged that she was talking to her kids and engaging them in dialogue about what the movie asserts. With more finely honed eyes and ears, there is hope to redeem even the most banal and vapid of summer tent poles.