When Despicable Me (and its sequel) hit cinema screens the reviews were universally (literally) positive, but the biggest hurrah was surely for the instantly-classic hench-creatures that followed their leader 'Gru' around, generally causing more chaos than help. The lingusitically-challenged Minions were a cross between yellow jelly-beans, gremlins and walking, talking, fumbling emoticons.
Given their popularity and the obvious numerous merchandising opportunities, it was perhaps inevitable that they would get their own film, a prequel that charts their origins, their many, many failed-attempts at finding a suitable world-dominator to latch on to and their biggest mission (set in and around 1968). Having hidden away for most of the twentieth century in an ever more apathetic icy duplex of solitude, three of the Minions (Kevin, Bob and Stuart) venture forward and into the outside world in an almost Darwinian effort to save their fellow minions, hoping to find a nefarious superior. They hear about a supervillain convention taking place in Orlando and set off on a road-trip. But in finding Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock) have they discovered the despot they've always wanted or someone who will use them and abuse them?
As the action moves across the Atlantic, the very British monarchy is imperilled by Scarlet and her new hapless yellow neophytes....
From the opening seconds (with the Minions warbling the Universal opening jingle) it's clear that the audience is in for some fun - and the mix of adults and kids at the screening I attended, testifies to the in-built popularity of the manic denim-clad creatures. But the inherent danger with the nature of spin-offs is that something that worked in a more carefully-rationed supporting role will not prove quite as successful when moved centre-stage... and it's true that with ninety-minutes to themselves, the Minions has/have a plot that tends to veer from one OTT set-piece to another. But there is a tendency to think from the final result that every pitched joke involving the walking emoticons got thrown into the mix rather than being carefully selected... and though most of them hit their targets, the antics get less and less 'refined' and more and more abstract to the point where manic satire simply becomes absurd slapstick.
The initial 'evolutionary timeline' aspect is rich for exploiting and laugh-out-loud funny (doomed donosaurs, flattened Pharoahs and nip-tucked Napoleonics abound) but it's largely shoe-horned into the first fifteen minutes of a film that ultimately loses its focus and some of that potential as it proceeds. We're quickly on to the culture-shock of 1968 America which will bring a smile to nostalgic adults (but may be somewhat lost on the youngest viewers) but even that is discarded in favour of British iconic mayhem for the main part of the movie.
That UK portion of the story is more all-ages Austin Powers mixed tith The Three Stooges than the original Despicable Me. Yes, the backgrounds are pixel-perfect with plenty of in-jokes but the humour becomes solely based on cultural stereotypes and it all starts to wear a little thing, even given the accompanying bouncy soundtrack of classic retro-tracks from the likes of The Doors, The Who and Donovan.
Ultimately it's a cold heart that won't find many a thing to laugh at while watching Minions - it's a fine, silly romp that has enough in its running-time to please adults and kiddies alike - the slapstick, sight-gags and funny interaction steer just the right side of cheeky and it'll make a splash at the box-office before making a real killing on DVD. It's simply a little disappointing that what was on the edge of becoming a genuine pop-cultural phenomena to eclipse the original Smurfs (ask your parents) seems to have coasted into what feels like a safe gag-reel stop-gap between Despicable movies.. adequate and zany, but somewhat directionless, scattershot coasting on existing love rather than surfing with attitude.
There's probably some unintended meta-textual parallels in the fact that the Minions seem enthusiastic and eager, but are forever unable to quite navigate the obstacles to pull off their ambitious plans. If the rounded miscreants can't be as pointed and subversive as before, perhaps the future of the otherwise delightfully anarchic creations is in smaller bites - such as the myriad Minions segments populating many a facebook post or perhaps in a similar format of the ground-breaking shortstories that Pixar that used to run before the company's movies...
Minions is released by Universal and is out across the UK now...
(With thanks to Vue at The Light, Leeds...)