Movie review: ‘Minions’

Let me say right up front that I am a cold hard man. My knees do not buckle at the sight of cuddly, house pet camaraderie. My heart — assuming that I have one, it functions only as a utility — has yet to be stirred by the alleged cuteness of cats doing all sorts of things on YouTube. Yet I have no problem giving myself over to the minions, those little yellow, undeniably adorable, pill-shaped creatures from the “Despicable Me” franchise.

By any natural law, I should respond to them with the same dead-eyed stare with which I greet the other animated sprites of family-friendly cinema. But I don’t, because like me, minions scoff at laws, order and movies with wholesome messages. They embody pure, spectacular irreverence, they speak gibberish, and they have an utterly delightful disregard for authority. Their default mode is chaos, not sanctimony. And their latest outing, a self-titled spinoff film lacking a message, is perfectly pointless. It is a feature length non-sequitur. I liked it.

“Minions” encompasses the years leading up to the critters’ employment with Gru, the pointy-nosed super villain of the first two movies. Their goal in life is to serve the world’s preeminent baddie. It’s a nominal job title. More often than not, they end up getting in the way — so often, in fact, that they are directly, but unintentionally responsible for the demise of all their previous bosses. Eventually an advertisement brings three particularly brave minions — Kevin, Stuart and Bob — to a villain convention, and soon they are newly employed by Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock). She gives them one assignment: steal the crown from the queen of England.

Anarchy ensues. Most of it is staged, cleverly, in London, and the film riffs on that great stereotype of British politeness. One local man reading the paper on his balcony refuses to acknowledge the crumbling real estate around him. It’s simply not in the English tradition to make a fuss. A newscaster, honoring his country’s etiquette, can only speak hypothetically about the bedlam taking place: If I weren’t so polite, I would report the news accurately, he seems to be saying in one scene.

Though the movie is mostly enjoyable, it’s probably a little too busy for its own good. It lacks the laid back, no-big-deal air of its predecessors. Those movies were breezy adventures that never tried to bludgeon your senses. By contrast, this film craves your attention, and without an endearing parental fixture like Gru around which to center the action, “Minions” often feels aimless. That seems to be built right into the characterizations, though. Early in the movie, the minions have learned how to live without a master, but eventually depression sets in. Their impromptu musical numbers and slapstick pranks can only sustain them for so long. Frankly, I could listen to them sing and dance all day.

When the minions break out into song, it has more of a liberating quality than is evoked by “Let It Go” — that anthem of independence and self-expression from Disney’s “Frozen” — partly because minion music lacks the on-the-nose lyrics. But also because it isn’t bound by narrative, genre tropes — a princess locked in a castle — or any context at all, cinematic or social, for that matter. It comes out of nowhere, it’s totally bonkers and it makes you feel free.

Illumination Entertainment, the production company responsible for the “Despicable Me” franchise, is very much the anti-Disney. That studio’s animated kids movies, especially those under the Pixar banner like “Toy Story,” and the more recent “Inside Out,” are great entertainments. But some of them are crippled by a tendency to moralize, or to teach, when it’s not even clear if the message is getting through. Their intent is to move your soul. Minions, on the other hand, will settle for your body. After all, they represent the boundless curiosity of childhood, and their latest movie is an argument for fun, play and unsupervised mayhem — a helicopter parent’s worst nightmare.

A version of this review appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on July 16, 2015.

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