It is the perennial dream of second bananas to become the star of the show.
Sometimes they’re better off as second bananas.
That’s the case with “Minions,” a spinoff of the wildly successful “Despicable Me” animated franchise.
In the “Despicable” features, the Minions are the banana-yellow, fireplug-shaped workforce of evil mastermind Gru, voiced by Steve Carell. Outfitted with huge safety goggles and tiny overalls, they cheerfully do their master’s bidding while babbling in a hilarious helium-voiced language.
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Though loyal to their evil boss, the Minions are morally neutral. More important, they’re inept, which means their efforts hinder as much as help the big guy’s agenda.
“Minions” follows the template set last fall by “Penguins of Madagascar,” elevating one movie’s sidekicks to leading men in their own stand-alone story. But where “Penguins” gave us chatty waddling birds with very specific personalities, the various “Minions” are pretty much interchangeable.
Equally frustrating, by eliminating the Carell role, co-directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin and writer Brian Lynch give their sawed-off protagonists no worthy character to play off of.
This prequel begins in prehistory, showing how the creatures evolved over the eons. According to Geoffrey Rush’s narration, the Minions always sought an evil boss to work for, be it a Tyrannosaurus rex or an Egyptian pharaoh. Invariably they bring their leader to ruin and must seek out a new benefactor.
After living for centuries in a polar ice cave, three minions — Kevin, Stuart and Bob — strike out on a quest to find a new boss. They wind up in NYC circa 1968, an era of protest, long hair and bell bottoms (not to mention the sounds of the Who, the Doors, the Kinks, the Stones and other classic rock acts that pepper the soundtrack).
Our three adventurers find themselves attending a secret convention of supervillains where they are wowed by this year’s It Girl, the charming/sinister Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock), whose retro hairdo and fashion sense seem to have been inspired by the late Amy Winehouse.
Recruited by the megalomaniacal Scarlett and outfitted with super weapons by her inventor husband, the twit-ish Herb Overkill (Jon Hamm), our boys are sent forth to steal the crown of Queen Elizabeth (Jennifer Saunders). Mayhem ensues.
First, the not-so-good: The story arc of “Minions” is creaky. There’s a kitchen-sink approach at work here, with writer Lynch throwing everything he can think of into the mix. Bullock’s and Hamm’s comic villains aren’t particularly entertaining, more “meh” than amusing. And there’s no emotional weight, something you could not say about “Despicable Me.”
The good: Some of the gags are quite funny, especially some of the baby boomer references. In one sublimely weird segment, the three Minions hitch a ride with a seemingly normal vacationing suburban family (Mom and Dad Nelson are voiced by Allison Janney and Michael Keaton) who periodically hit the brakes, pull on masks and rob banks.
And the film looks great, especially the photo-realistic re-creations of New York and London during the swinging ’60s.
The overall effect is mildly diverting and almost instantly forgettable.
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
IS THAT A LANGUAGE?
The Minions seem to make themselves clear, but what are they saying?
“It’s basically gibberish,” “Minions” director Pierre Coffin told Newsday. He co-directed with fellow animator Kyle Balda and provides the little guys’ voices. He said they tried to use words from every language “so everyone feels the Minions are part of their culture.” It didn’t quite work.
“I had this whole theory about using the most spoken language in the world, which is obviously Chinese,” Coffin said, “but every time I tried to say something in Chinese, it turned out to be the opposite of what I was trying to say. In the end, I didn’t want to offend anyone, so I dropped it and went directly to Spanish. With gibberish. And Italian.”
With the occasional lapse into English, or phrases like “mazel tov.”
3-D OR NOT 3-D?
The 3-D on display in “Minions” is adequate but unremarkable. It’s for hardcore 3-D enthusiasts only.