Yellow Fever (and How to Cure It)
You may well have been expecting a review of Terminator Genisys (sorry, spellchecker) to appear here or hereabouts at around this point. Well, quite frankly, so did I, but I'm afraid we will both have to wait a bit longer for that. Instead, for reasons which need not really concern us, we will have to content ourselves with a review of Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda's Minions.
This movie has been virtually inescapable for some time: trailers and merchandising spin-offs reached the point of total saturation a while ago, and why shouldn't they, given that it's hard to shake the feeling that here we are in the business of brand extension and the induced lactation of a monetary bovine (or, to put it another way, the milking of a cash cow): the first two Despicable Me films, to which this is a spin-off/prequel, made something like $1.4 billion between them, making the series what the Muppets would doubtless call 'a viable franchise'.
I haven't seen either of the previous films, but even so I know enough to understand what's going on here: a popular set of supporting characters being elevated to the point where they carry (or not) their own vehicle. The characters in this case being the Minions, a swarm of small yellow morons who – it is revealed – evolved to fill the peculiarly specific niche of being sidekicks/henchbeings to the world's greatest monsters, villains, and other ne'er-do-wells.
Being morons, they find steady employment to be difficult to come by, and eventually the whole tribe relocates to a remote icy fastness in despair. But Minions need a boss and it falls to a trio of the little yellow idiots to go forth in search of a new master. Their names are Stuart, Kevin, and Bob, and they find themselves in New York, 1968. From here they attend the world's biggest Super-Villain convention and end up in the service of the dangerously glamorous Scarlet Overkill (voiced by Sandy Bullock) and her husband Herb (Jon Hamm). Scarlet has a plan requiring the Crown Jewels of England, and packs the Minions off to get it for her – will they succeed and thus secure a future for their kind? Or is that whole 'moron' thing just a bit too hard to shake?
Hum. Now, as regular readers will know, animated films are not something I go to see terribly often, but I like to think that when I do I give them a fair crack of the whip – I'm usually pretty positive about Studio Ghibli productions, and I seem to recall saying nice things about Big Hero Six and Shaun the Sheep earlier this year too. So I hope you will understand it's not just bias or sour grapes if I say that Minions just struck me as being an extremely average film.
This is mainly because the folks at Pixar, amongst others, have managed to raise the bar for CGI family films to an almost uncannily high level in the course of the last two decades: these films are almost unfailingly astonishingly beautiful to look at, with jaw-dropping levels of detail and visual invention, something that is matched by the wit and sophistication of the scripts, which generally include surprisingly rounded characterisations and an unexpected level of emotional content.
Minions has that level of visual polish and design, naturally, and there's not much you can fault about the look of the thing – indeed, the film's big set pieces are pretty much flawlessly executed, from an aesthetic point of view of nothing else. It's just that there's really very little going on beyond the most superficial level of being good to look at.
The film seems predicated on the notion that the little yellow idiots are inherently lovable and hilarious: scene after scene ambles by with the three main characters wandering about doing stuff, with the directors clearly convinced this is utterly enchanting to watch. I did not find it so. This is not to say that the film does not have any decent gags in it – it does, but most of them are in the trailer. The rest of it is either just somewhat amusing, or actively baffling – the actual plot feels rather like an afterthought, contrapted just to propel the main characters from one quickfire gag-montage to another.
The rest of it feels a bit chucked together too. The 1968 setting simply seems to be an excuse to fill the soundtrack with comfortably familiar classic pop songs (while the film's grasp of British constitutional law also strikes me as being somewhat suspect too). There are various visual shout-outs to things like classic Bond, and Marvel Comics, and an inevitable reference to Comic-Con, but they don't hang together coherently – there's no sense of a world with a deeper reality beyond whatever gag is currently on the screen.
The cast list is filled with the names of more-than-competent performers – as well as Bullock and Hamm, Michael Keaton, Alison Janney, Jennifer Saunders and Steve Coogan all appear – but hardly any of them make much impression, simply because the script isn't nearly tight or sharp or funny enough to work as a piece of entertainment for anyone other than fairly undemanding children. Minions will probably make a great big pile of money, and further instalments are apparently already in the works, but that doesn't mean it comes anywhere close to the standards of the best movies in this genre.