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Entries in Minions [2015] (1)

Friday
Jul172015

Minions (2015)

Outside In

Between movies that ask us to fully engage our brains, and those that demand we turn them off in the ticket line, exists a rare breed of film that entertains while neither insulting nor enlightening the audience. I really enjoyed Minions, even though it wasn't an especially memorable experience.* It came. It went. It was, for the most part, its own thing, and the creative team invested nearly as much in the script as it did in the animation--a breath of fresh air in this summer of franchise flashbacks and recycled reboots.

But, wait. Isn't Minions a prequel to the Despicable Me series? Isn't it just an excuse to produce toys and print money? Yes, on all counts--and that's okay in this case. The downside to Pixar's tremendous legacy of intelligent, heartfelt animation is that it set an unreasonable expectation for other 'toon shops, like Minions' Illumination Entertainment. There seems to be little room, at least in the critical marketplace, for modern cartoons that ignore Greater Thematic Messages in favor of well-executed slapstick and an elevator-pitch plot. Minions isn't a particularly smart kids' movie, but it's not a stupid one, either.

Serving as an origin story for supervillain Gru's (Steve Carell) henchmen, Minions follows the cuddly, gibberish-spouting creatures from primordial soup to swingin'-60s London. As a species, they are genetically drawn to seeking out the biggest, most evil master to serve, which Forrest Gumps them into adventures with T-rexes, Dracula, and Napoleon Bonaparte. At some point in time, they got lost and settled in an Antarctic cave. After years of exhausting every mode of self-entertainment, three Minions set out to find a new rotten overlord.

Unlikely heroes Kevin, Stuart, and Bob (all voiced by co-director Pierre Coffin) trek to New York and then hitch a ride with a family of maniacs headed to an Orlando criminals convention. They draw the attention of Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock), who recruits them to steal the Queen's crown from the Tower of London. As you can imagine, the Minions aren't exactly Ethan Hunt, and Britain soon learns what a lava gun, a hypnosis hat, and an out-of-control royal carriage can do to the national psyche.

I appreciated Minions as an episodic adventure with a threadbare plot. It was clear to me that co-directors Coffin and Kyle Balda, and writer Bryan Lynch set out to make a movie that's just for kids (remember those?). The gags range from goofy (Minion in a thong!) to slightly mature (depressed Minions playing soccer!) to downright obscure (Minions wander onto the fake-moon-landing set!)--without stooping to crassness. Grown-ups will either invest in these wacky vignettes or they'll check their watches when the kids aren't looking (as their parents likely did during Tom & Jerry marathons). Adults who aren't movie critics or animated-film completists probably won't check out Minions in the theatre, 'cause this clearly isn't Inside Out.

I'm glad it's not. Illumination has proven that the marketplace is big enough for beautifully realized digital characters, sets, and animations that aren't uniformly heady, emotionally draining theses about the human condition. This Pixar brand loyalty has gotten way out of hand, to the extent that even when the studio itself aims broader (Cars 2 or Monsters University come to mind), fandom practically boots the "lesser" films from the stable. It's not that there's anything particularly wrong with those movies,** they just aren't as thought-provoking, original, or smart as Up or Ratatouille (the latter, by the way, had as its main character a French country mouse with Patton Oswalt's voice). Minions feels leagues ahead of the original Despicable Me, in that it doesn't feel like anyone's trying to compete with the Pixar sensibility this time around.

My one glaring problem with Minions is its climax, a lawsuit-worthy mash-up of The Boxtrolls and The Iron Giant. From the crazed, mech-suited villain terrorizing a quaint-looking town square, to the over-grown Minion sacrificing himself by flying a nuclear weapon into space, the filmmakers disgracefully transcend homage by counting on a majority of the audience not having seen what can only be referred to as "the source material".

In hindsight, I'm grateful for the Iron Giant reference, even though it grosses me out. That film is all heart. The average Pixar movie is part heart and part head. Minions aims squarely for the gut, with a consistent flow of laughs, snickers, and silly sight gags whose staying power barely outlasts the end credits. Your mileage may vary, of course, but as far as I can tell, the filmmakers didn't get the memo about this being a calculated cash-in.

*Aside from my son laughing his head off at certain scenes, which is more than enough, really.

**Cars 2, in particular, is the kind of thematically bold switcheroo that folks who decry cookie-cutter sequels should have slobbered over. But, no, the collective must automatically dismiss anything associated with NASCAR or Larry the Cable Guy.