For those who don't watch TV or frequent chain stores or Facebook, here's the real backstory of the Minions. Five years ago, these pencil-eraser-esque, googly-eyed, gibberish-spouting creatures were entertaining side characters in an above-average family flick called Despicable Me. Small children took so much pleasure in the Minions' antics as they served (and often chaotically sabotaged) the film's supervillain protagonist that a larger role in the 2013 sequel was inevitable.
Judging by their popularity in social-media memes and advertising, the following two years saw the Minions ascend to cultural icon status — an army of nonverbal Bart Simpsons for a new generation. Now they have their own movie, and it's almost exactly what you'd expect: a hilarious romp for very small viewers, a bit painful for large ones.
Directed by Kyle Balda (The Lorax) and Pierre Coffin (both Despicable Mes), Minions offers a fictional version of the Minions' backstory. A plummy-voiced narrator (Geoffrey Rush) guides us through the prehistory of the little dudes. (Or are they? Despite the use of male names and pronouns, the Minions' lack of visible sex characteristics is a recurring gag.) From the beginning of time, we learn, Minions survived by glomming on to the biggest, baddest bullies in their environment. The symbiosis invariably went south for both parties, however, so the Minions eventually renounced their toadying ways and sought safety in isolation.
At this point, the action jumps to 1968, a date we're asked to see as a turning point in Minion history, though it actually serves mainly as an excuse to put "far out" stereotypes on the screen and boomer favorites on the soundtrack. An unusually self-motivated Minion named Kevin (voiced, along with his brethren, by Coffin) thinks his people need a supervillain master once more. So he sets out, along with teenager-ish Stuart and cuddly, childish Bob, in search of evil. Eventually they find Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock), a wasp-waisted charmer who recruits them to steal the Queen of England's crown.
It's a funny central conceit that clearly plays on children's ambivalence about their dependence on big, strong, often inscrutable adults. The problem is, no one in the movie seems remotely like an adult, and the wildly zigzagging storyline might itself have been scripted by Minions. Portrayed as a none-too-bright aspiring high school Mean Girl (without the delicious slyness that Steve Carell gave his parallel character in Despicable Me), Scarlett Overkill never poses a plausible threat to the Minions, let alone the world. That leaves the story without tension or stakes. And it's hard to root for characters who barely have differentiated identities — they're just foci for joyful anarchy.
At its best, Minions is random to the point of trippiness, as in a scene where our heroes hypnotize the Queen's guard and lead them in a half-naked Minion-speak rendition of the chorus of "Hair." Far too often, though, the movie relies on tired slapstick and weak sight gags (A Minion in a medieval torture dungeon! A Minion riding one of the queen's corgis! A Minion wearing a thong!) instead of finding humor in the Minions' genuine alienness. The script barely acknowledges the apparent contradiction between their adorable innocence and their vocation of evil sycophancy, much less milk it for satire.
But satire takes life experience to appreciate — and this movie, more than many of its animated brethren, aims straight at the least seasoned viewers. While kids who crave more Minion havoc will probably leave satisfied, no one should come to Minions expecting the emotional arc of Frozen or Inside Out or even Despicable Me. WALL-E downplayed dialogue to tell a universal story through images; Minions downplays dialogue because its critters have nothing much to say. Their expressive jabber is fascinating until you start recognizing English, French and Spanish phrases — and realize they're basically just speaking the new Esperanto of worldwide box-office domination.