Minions


Scarlet Overkill attempts to kill the Minions with kindness.

Scarlet Overkill attempts to kill the Minions with kindness.

(2015) Animated Feature (Universal) Starring the voices of Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders, Geoffrey Rush, Steve Carell, Pierre Coffin, Katy Mixon, Michael Beattie, Hiroyuki Sanada, Dave Rosenbaum, Alex Dowding, Paul Thornley, Ava Acres, Carlos Alazraqui, Lori Alan, Laraine Newman, Mindy Sterling. Directed by Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin

We know the villains. They are often flamboyant, deliciously evil and unforgettable. But what of their henchmen? What of the cannon fodder they send to take on the hero, or to do whatever nefarious deed needs doing. What of them?

Master criminal Gru (Carell) has long been supported by his yellow pill-like Minions (all voiced by Coffin), odd creatures in denim overalls, usually with two eyes (occasionally with just one) who speak an odd high-pitched patois of every language on Earth as well as some gibberish that sounds like a 33 1/3 vinyl album played at 45 RPM (ask your parents or grandparents; they’ll understand the reference). But where do these non-human creatures come from?

It turns out from right here. An amusing opening sequence (much of which is seen in the trailer) shows them evolving from single-celled organisms who are determine that the best way for them to survive in a hostile world is to find the biggest, baddest villain they can, serve him and by doing so, come under his protection.

This goes badly for the Minions. It isn’t so much that their masters turn on them, as you might expect that evil villains might. It’s just that the Minions, in trying to serve, have an unnerving knack of killing their masters by accident. This causes the Minions to sink into a deep depression.

One of their number by the name of Kevin won’t sit idly by for this. He determines to leave their ice cave lair and find a new boss to serve. To accompany him will be Stuart, a would-be rock and roller, and Bob, the most adorable Minion and perhaps the most enthusiastic.

As the Minions have been in hiding for a number of years, the world has changed somewhat since last they had been seen. It is 1968 and it is New York City. You’d think that Minions would find plenty of villains there but they discover that, rather, Orlando is the place to be. That’s because a convention of evildoers is about to convene in The City Beautiful in the years Before Disney.

They hitch a ride with Walter (Keaton) and Madge Nelson (Janney) who are driving down to Orlando with their kids. It turns out that they are villains as well, expert bank robbers. And there are a number of Villains who might be worthy of the Minions, like Professor Flux (Coogan) or Sumo (Sanada). However, the biggest baddest villain of them all is Scarlet Overkill (Bullock) who it so happens is hiring.

Kevin, Bob and Stuart get the gig and go to London in Scarlet’s private jet (apparently crime does pay after all) where they meet her mechanical genius of a husband Herb (Hamm). Scarlet’s already got a job in mind for the adorable yellow Minions; to steal the crown of Queen Elizabeth (Saunders). Easy peasy, right? Of course, the Minions make a hash of it and things go rapidly downhill from there.

There has been a tendency in the world of animated features of late to populate them with adorable supporting creatures, from the slugs of Flushed Away to the penguins of Madagascar. Sometimes these creatures are more interesting than the main characters (see Skrat, Ice Age). The Minions may be the best of these, entirely incompetent but always worth a giggle. They often upstage Gru in his own movies.

They actually do an adequate job of carrying their own movie as well, although not a spectacular one. While their Minion language gets a bit old in its indecipherable glory, it still gets the message across. Their simplicity appeals to children who tend to like their characters to be uncomplicated and the Minions are definitely that.

The entertainment factor is solid. There are plenty of sight gags that are clever although truth be told they occasionally are too clever for their own good (like the Minions emerging from a sewer on Abbey Road only to be stepped on by Four sets of Fabulous feet at the crosswalk. It’s a famous album cover – ask your parents or your grandparents, they’ll understand the reference.

But the problem here is that there really is no there there, as Gertrude Stein might say. It’s entertaining, but only that; the content is so light and airy that the slightest of breezes will blow the whole thing away like a dandelion in spring. The story, while disposable, grinds to a halt in a few places and unnecessarily so. There were some scenes the movie could well have done without.

I would have thought that the Minions could have survived on their own but it turns out that they need Gru more than he needs them, which comes as a bit of a shock. At the end of the day, they are supporting characters and because they are meant to be in the background, they don’t really make an impression in the foreground for the hour and a half running time. This really feels like a Saturday morning cartoon stretched out to feature length, and while that may be a bit harsh and perhaps unjustified, nonetheless that’s the impression I walked out with. It’s entertaining enough that if you take your kids to see it you won’t be unbelievably bored (as with several animated features from last year) but at the very least this movie will make you appreciate Gru all the more.

REASONS TO GO: Reasonably entertaining for both parents and children. Minions are adorable.
REASONS TO STAY: Disposable fluff.  Drags in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of slightly rude humor and animated action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Kevin, Bob and Stuart are watching Scarlet Overkill’s presentation at Villain-Con, Gargamel from the Smurfs can be seen sitting directly in front of them.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flushed Away
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Ant-Man

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Despicable Me


Despicable Me

Gru doesn't quite get the concept of mooning his audience.

(Universal) Starring the voices of Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Julie Andrews, Russell Brand, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Mindy Kaling, Danny McBride, Dana Gaier, Elsie Fisher, Pierre Coffin. Directed by Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin

It’s tough being a world-class villain. Not only do your grand schemes of world domination need to be extravagantly profitable, you always have to fight off some wet-behind-the-ears supervillain who wants to earn a reputation at your expense.

Gru (Carell) is as despicable as they come. He will make a child a balloon animal only to pop it; he’ll use his freeze ray on patrons in front of him in the line at Starbucks, and he’ll steal the Times Square Jumbotron to watch football games on. Unfortunately, there’s a new kid in town, a kid called Vector (Segel) and he’s outdone Gru by stealing the Great Pyramid at Giza.

This heats up Gru’s competitive juices to the boiling point, so he feels a need to one-up his new competition and his answer is elegant in its simplicity – Gru plans to steal the moon. Aided by his vaguely Twinkie-like Minions and his curmudgeonly scientific aide-de-camp Dr. Nefario (Brand, sounding nothing like Aldous Snow), all he needs is a shrink ray and a rocket. The shrink ray he can get – it’s the rocket that’s a problem.

Like any enterprising businessman, Gru goes to the bank to get a loan from the bank, but he can’t exactly walk into the nearest Citibank with a business plan that involves stealing a celestial body. Luckily for Gru, there’s always the Bank of Evil (in one of the film’s cleverest jokes, the front of the bank is emblazoned with “Formerly Lehman Brothers”). Unfortunately, Mr. Perkins (Arnett), the humorless blob of a bank president, is not willing to part with the money. You see, most of Gru’s grand schemes have, while successful, not been terribly profitable. However, if Gru can show the bank the shrink ray, they’ll give him the cash.

Easier said than done. The shrink ray is being tested by a Southeast Asian weapons laboratory, but Gru being nefarious and direct, steals the device by sawing a hole in the roof, sending a minion to manually operate a giant claw to pick up the ray gun and jet away. Hunky dory until Vector shows up to cut a hole in his roof.

Gru needs to retrieve the shrink ray from his archnemesis but infiltrating his modern, heavily defended lair proves to be impossible. However, Gru hits upon the scheme of sending in three orphans – Margo (Cosgrove), Edith (Gaier) and Agnes (Fisher) – to infiltrate the lair under the guise of selling Vector some cookies (cookies are Vector’s Achilles heel). Gru adopts the young tykes, but finds them to be major distractions, highly irritating and somewhat annoying. Can he rein in his young accomplices to carry out his diabolical plot, or will he succumb to the charms of the little girls?

These days computer animated features are a dime a dozen and audiences are demanding more sophistication and better stories. While Pixar continually delivers, the other animated studios are less consistent. This is Universal’s first computer-animated feature and the first in their partnership with Illumination Entertainment (who also have Hop and Flanimals on deck for 2011). So how did they do?

Well, there’s definitely a learning curve. Some of the movie works, but other places not so much. In checking out other reviews, I was amazed that most critics found the last half hour to be the best part of the movie; quite frankly, I was more impressed with the first part, when Gru is acting very much like the missing member of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. As the movie progresses, Gru gets more father-like and softer, losing much of the edge that made him notable early on.

Still, Carell does a good job with the character, vaguely channeling the Soup Nazi. The evil Gru is interesting, but it’s the Minions who steal the show. Certain to become pop culture fixtures for the younger set (in the same way Oompa Loompas did a generation ago), they’re cute and speak in funny voices, with a Looney Tunes-like tendency to do spectacular harm to one another. Don’t be surprised if they show up on a Saturday morning cartoon show in the near future.

The movie gets disappointing towards the end. It’s standard animated feature fare of the heart of a bad guy being melted by adorable little girls. That’s the type of thing Disney was doing 70 years ago. By the time the movie ends, Gru is bestowing good night kisses on his Minions. I can’t see a reason to see a sequel to this; Gru’s too soft, too ordinary. The more despicable Gru is, the better the movie is.

REASONS TO GO: The minions are awesome and Carell makes Gru memorable. There are some moments that are laugh-out-loud funny.

REASONS TO STAY: Typical animated feature fare; definitely skewed towards a younger crowd.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie has a PG rating due to rude humor but in my book, it’s perfectly fine for children of all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The soda cup that the Carnival Barker is drinking from is based on the ones used at Walt Disney World, which has no midway games.

HOME OR THEATER: This is one of those rare instances where a movie is actually enhanced by 3D; unless you have a big screen 3D television, I would suggest a trip to the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs