Don’t pick at it, your mother said. Leave it alone, it’ll get infected.
And did you listen to your mother? Of course you didn’t. And neither did Pierre Coffin. His Despicable Me was a perfect movie, and told a story that was perfectly wrapped up by its end. Did he leave it alone? No. He had to go back and pick at the perfection until it had unraveled into the festering mess that was Despicable Me 2, which upended everything that was lovely and wonderful about its predecessor to the point where we had to wonder whether he even understood what had made the first movie so great. And then he still couldn’t leave it alone, and he picked at it some more, and now we have Minions.
I confess: I love the Minions — they were the only tolerable thing about DP2, that’s for certain — and I seem to recall thinking after DP1 that they totally deserved their own movie. But I was wrong. Or, at least, the movie they’ve now gotten is not the movie they deserve.
Oh, this is fine for little kids. Minions is mostly devoid of the crap that drives me crazy about movies that are aimed at little kids, like fart jokes and crotch injuries. The little kids will laugh at the slapstick antics of the small yellow blobs and have a fine time, probably. But I am not a little kid, and I do not write for little kids. The things that are a little bit off-putting about this movie are not things that will register with the little kids, but they registered with me.
Turns out, the Minions are better off without a backstory. Their mystery was part of their charm. Their minion-ness is essential to their humor. And none of that is present here.
The first thing that Coffin — joined here by co-director Kyle Balda (The Lorax) and screenwriter Brian Lynch (Puss in Boots, Hop) — should not have picked at is the biological evolution of the Minions. The movie opens with a grand history of the race, starting with their appearance as tiny one-yellow-celled creatures floating in the primordial seas through their walking up onto land in pretty much the form we see them in now. Cartoondom may have a long fan tradition of examining the sexuality of cartoon characters — see the seminal paper “Bugs Bunny in a Dress Makes Me Feel Kinda Funny” by Garth Algar, PhD — but now we are forced to consider how the Minions evolved when they are all apparently male. At least, they all seem to have male names; the narrator of the history lesson (Geoffrey Rush: The Book Thief, Green Lantern) rattles off a long list of Minion names — all male (and English-language names to boot, but that’s another rant) — for some reason that makes no sense at all unless it’s to reassure us that, yes, all Minions are male. And yet they also have sexual attraction: we witness one Minion hitting on a yellow fire hydrant. So the Minions must all be gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (or with being hydrant-oriented), but that tends to hinder reproduction without technological assistance.
It’s not like I want to think about this stuff, but the movie forced me to.
The second thing that Coffin should have left alone because it might get infected is the cultural history of the Minions once they had achieved their current physical form: as a race driven to find the biggest, baddest villains to serve and worship until accidentally killing them with their bumbling overenthusiasm. First it was T. rex, then it was the Egyptian pharaohs, and so on, right on up until Napoleon… at which point the Minions became depressed as a culture and retreated to the Arctic (or the Antarctic; it’s not clear). And it’s not like I want to think about this either, but the movie forced me to: What, no Hitler for the Minions to worship and serve and kill? No Stalin? No Pol Pot? They could have done us all a huge favor and not gone into retirement.
I know, I know: This is a kids’ movie, you can’t bring Hitler into it! I’m not saying it should have, and I get why the movie just skips right over the war-torn 19th and 20th centuries. I am saying that getting this specific about the Minions’ backstory makes it uncomfortably weird for those of us over the age of six.
When the Minions emerge from their depression and decide to go in search of a new Big Boss, it is 1968 and apparently Richard Nixon isn’t good enough for them. So Minion scouts Kevin, Bob, and Stuart (all voiced by Coffin) settled on the world’s first female supervillain, Scarlet Overkill (the voice of Sandra Bullock: Gravity, The Heat)… who is a pretty standard cartoon villain who doesn’t commit genocide or hang out with Henry Kissinger at all. She evil-plans eventually to take over the British monarchy, which might be villainous but is hardly a route to power, but which does allow lots of 1960s-era poking fun at the British. Pierre Coffin is French, so basically you’re watching a lot of ethnic-humor payback happening here. Some of it is even mildly amusing; it’s not exactly the height of cruelty to suggest that the Brits drink a lot of tea.
Minions on the whole is mildly cute, but the Minions kinda don’t work as the heroes, which is the role they end up in. It demands that they behave in an un-Minion-like manner that is entirely contrary to why we fell in love with them in the first place. Can’t we just let Minions be minions? And not know so much about them? Please?