I went into this film with really low expectations. Sure, I enjoyed Despicable Me, and I heard the sequel was okay, but the minions, though mildly amusing, were hardly my favorite part of the film. And when I heard that a film featuring the minions was planned, it just sounded like a kind of sell-out idea. How could they possibly carry a feature film? They only speak a kind of gibberish, and their individual identity is very limited. On top of that, they are helpers to a villain, so there is a challenge getting the audience to empathize with them. I can understand some amusing shorts featuring them, but a Hollywood film would require a kind of hero’s journey, and that just seemed kind of ludicrous.
Well, wow, was I wrong. This film is something of a magic trick, achieved through bravery and cleverness. The keys to success, as best I can pick them out:
- An incredibly strange premise: The minions have always lived on earth, parallel with dinosaurs and the evolution of man. They seem to be immortal, or at least living hundreds of millions of years. Where they came from is left a mystery.
- The minions seek out the biggest, most evil entity they can find, and endeavor to help it. It isn’t clear why they do this – it’s just what they do.
- It isn’t explicitly mentioned, but it is clear that the minions, in the traditional way of clowns and fools, bring bad luck to those around them, but are always lucky themselves in the long run. Weirdly, since they are attracted to villains, this makes them an unwitting force for good.
- In the story, the minions simply run out of villains, and become quite bored and dismal. Accordingly, three of them set out on a journey to find a new villain. This simple move allows for a hero’s journey to happen.
- We then are confronted with the strange world of the villains, and a story happens. The storytellers are completely unconcerned with reality – this is very important – as some very improbable things happen – Minion Bob becomes the King of England, for example, and somehow the story world doesn’t break – it just keeps stretching, like taffy, because everything just happens so fast, and is so funny, that it doesn’t much matter that what’s happening is impossible. It’s like a funny uncle telling an absurd story to six year olds at a birthday party. They keep laughing, so he keeps making the story more absurd, and they laugh all the more.
- Amazingly, there is never some weird misunderstanding separating the minions (see The Muppet Movie, The Three Stooges Movie, etc.), leading to some powerful moment of reconciliation. The minions also do not befriend some cute little girl who has to hide them in her bedroom closet. All the tropes I would have expected just aren’t here. And somehow, the whole thing works… I can’t exactly say why. I guess because the goal of the minions is always very clear, but very challenging, and when things go wrong, we’re pleased to see it. I keep thinking of a story structure I know that’s like this one. Some Marx Brothers movies, say, Horse Feathers, bear some resemblance – but the problem there is that the clowns are helping someone we care about. Typically, in those stories, the clowning makes things worse, and then a stroke of luck + more clowning saves the day. In the beginning it makes the clowns seem insensitive – we feel bad that their clowning is making things hard for the princess. And in the end it often feels like a cop out – they only helped the princess because they were lucky. But here it is all backwards – they don’t realize they aren’t helping the villain, and we don’t mind, because, well, villain. And in the end, yes, there is a stroke of luck + clowning, but it only serves to finally defeat the villain.
- Oh, hey, I should mention – since this is a prequel, and mostly happens in England, they went for a whole sixties rock and roll thing – which on one level has nothing to do with the minions, so on the surface, it seems like a tacky choice. But it is so well executed and fun, that it adds a nice dimension to the film.
- So, finally, the thing I should really call out is the cyclic nature of the minion’s backstory. They necessarily repeatedly go through the cycle of finding a villain, trying to help, and ultimately destroying the villain. This not only opens them up as a long term franchise, it does a lot to strengthen their story relationship with Gru, from Despicable Me. We now see the minions for what they are – a curse that seeks out and destroys whatever villians it comes into contact with, which makes us wonder how they will inevitably bring down Gru, who we have developed empathy for. So, ultimately, the film fosters interest in another sequel.