Thursday, July 16, 2015

Jimbo Goes to the Movies: “Minions” (2015) Review

It’s the kind of hyper-kinetic, quasi-anarchic, counter-cultural comedy that would’ve made Buster Keaton proud. And in terms of social commentary, it might just be one of the smartest -- and most caustic -- films of the summer. 

By: Jimbo X

It may seem implausible at first, but “Minions” is very much a subversively clever work. Don’t let the jokes about bananas and fire hydrants fool you, the “Despicable Me” prequel definitely has some sociopolitical bite to it -- how could a film that features a character calling Queen Elizabeth a “cockroach” not?

To the untrained eye, “Minions” might appear to be a soulless cash-grab, but it’s actually a very good “disruptive comedy” in the vein of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. Indeed, the same way the Little Tramp gave a coy “F-U” to technological displacement in “Modern Times” and Groucho and company gave an even coyer “F-U” to the inane aristocracy in “Animal Crackers,” the (largely) indecipherable titular characters in “Minions” likewise wreak havoc for the social good. Over the course of 90 blazingly fast minutes, the little saffron-hued mischief makers mock the idealized, Disney-iteration of the nuclear family, the utter absurdity of geek fandom, pretentious modern art enthusiasts and pre-Thatcher English society literally without uttering a single intelligible line of dialogue.

Somewhere between Al Capp’s utopia-parodying Shmoos and Warner Herzog’s anarchic midgets in “Even Dwarfs Started Small,” the eponymous “Minions” take residence. Whereas the characters were largely used as background comedic relief in the “Despicable Me” movies, they are given a bit more personality here -- no small feat, seeing as how they speak entirely in a patois a’la Pootie Tang.

At the beginning of the film, we’re given a quick history of how the minions evolved from single-cell, lemon-colored blobs to T-Rex worshippers in the Triassic period. After accidentally killing hundreds of innocent Hebrews while supervising the construction of the Pyramids, killing Dracula and blowing up Napoleon, the little fellows -- perfectly described by one character in the film as “bald, jaundiced children” -- take refuge in the Antarctica, where they lament not having an evil master to control their every waking moment.

...and you would not believe the astounding number of
"Illuminati" conspiracy theories out there
surrounding the characters
You know, you really have to write that down to fully grasp just how messed up the general concept of “Minions” is. Somehow, some way, a mainstream, multinational conglomerate was able to transform the core idea of voluntary slaves in pursuit of master criminals and despots to endlessly toil for into an almost ubiquitous child-targeted brand. Needless to say, it took a whole lot of chutzpah (if not an envious amount of morbid ingenuity) to transform “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” into an adorable mass consumption icon, now plastered on everything from Twinkies to Tic-Tacs to sun block spray. (It’s also worth noting, perhaps, that unofficial “Minons” tampons have also been released.)

Kevin, one of the more adventurous minions, decides to leave the icy environs to find the world’s greatest criminal mastermind. On his daring quest, he is joined by two others -- a Lilliputian teddy-bear cradler named Bob and the rock-and-roll-obsessed Stuart. Eventually, they make their way to NYC circa 1968, where they are greeted by campaign billboards for Richard Nixon, Velvet Underground-inspired dresses and, of course, plenty of reruns of “The Dating Game.” Donning their trademark denim overalls (an oblique homage to the Soviet industrial worker or the American coal miner?), they become ecstatic over that year’s “Villain-Con,” an almost exact facsimile of the yearly “Comic-Con” event in San Diego -- only instead of celebrating the grandiloquent mayhem wrought by fictitious madmen, the in-universe masses flock there to celebrate authentic, real-world carnage and chicanery. Trekking to Orlando (the pre Disney-fied, swampy iteration of it), they are given a lift by a family of psychotic bank robbers, including a dad voiced by none other than Michael Keaton.

The trio are enamored by Scarlett Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock), a bee-hive hairdo-coiffed super-villainess who has come to the expo to find some new henchmen. Of course, the minions wind up winning a contest by fluke, and they are ushered to the U.K., where they met Scarlett’s proto-hipster mad inventor husband (he likes Warhol’s work, he tell us, because somebody has finally captured his own personal love of soup in an artistic medium) and get a debriefing on her latest nefarious plan. It’s not long before the minions are sent on a mission to retrieve the crown jewels, but a mishap leads to Bob (the diminutive, most-childlike minion) yanking out Excalibur and becoming the new King of England by default.

Obviously, that doesn’t sit very well with Scarlett, who hires practically every villain on earth -- ranging from sumo wrestler stereotypes to anachronistic black metal Vikings to a Creature from the Black Lagoon pastiche -- to do the minions in. By that point, however, the rest of the minions have punched their tickets from the south pole to England, so by the time we hit our dénouement, we’re literally working with a cast of hundreds of protagonists.

I don’t want to give away the ending (nor the sequel-bridging post-credit sequence), but rest assured
it’s a very satisfying conclusion which, not unlike the finale of the first “Ghostbusters” film, does a phenomenal job mocking the standard “Apocalypse porn” blockbuster endgame.

I always thought the Minions resembled the Servbots from the
"Mega Man" games. That, and a certain spongy comestible
I just can't recall. 
The mastermind behind the “Despicable Me” franchise is a Frenchman named Pierre Coffin (the perfect surname for a kids flick auteur, clearly.) He told Variety that the original idea for the now-omnipresent spokescharacters were orc-like brutes, before settling on the more Oompa-Loompa and Ewok-like designs we all know and love today. Their bumbling ways, he said, was meant to make Gru more relatable -- in effect, to give him a whole platoon of Steve Urkels to his Carl Winslow. That inherent incompetence, Coffin said, was also why he decided to make the minions all-male, as he couldn’t imagine any women being so goofy.

The mere fact that Coffin is a Frenchie goes pretty far in explaining the film’s sassy anti-Anglicanism. By portraying the royal guard as a bunch of easily fooled dummies and literally depicting the Queen of England as a boorish sort who knows how to fist fight and can demolish an entire pitcher of beer in one swallow, is there some sort of veiled jab at the British patriarchy and classism going on here? Considering co-director Kyle Balda’s track record with Pixar, mayhap the entire film itself is sort of a deconstruction of the contemporary CGI kids flick? Certainly, “Minions” goes out of it way to position itself as an anti-Disney flick -- there are no saccharine soliloquies, no Electra Complex subtext and towering castles serve only to personify the dark and regrettable Medieval epoch in jolly old England. In essence, “Minions,”is about as diametrically opposite a film can get from “Frozen” in tone while still maintaining a PG rating.

Yes, I am just as shocked as you are that I have
somehow yet to review this cereal.
Of course, the comparisons are all but unavoidable. Dollar for dollar, I’d consider “Inside Out” to be a better overall film, but then again, “Minions” sets out to do something entirely different as an animated offering. As a mad-cap, pop-culture-skewering CGI opus, I’d feel quite comfortable labeling “Minions” as a better film than either of the “Despicable Me” flicks -- and since I really, really enjoyed those, it’s saying quite a bit.

It’s astounding how, in a summer glutted with “adult” action yarns and ribald comedies, mere kiddie fare like “Minions” and “Inside Out” have proven the season's most comprehensively entertaining and subtextually interesting offerings. Sans the need for constant slam-bang action sequences and tired dick jokes, the filmmakers behind both films counter-intuitively found themselves with far more to work with in the allegedly “restrained” PG category, having been “forced” to sprinkle their films with more nuanced narratives that go beyond a few superficial millimeters of celluloid. While the onslaught of “Minions”-branded everything may rightly turn you off to the film, the flick itself is very amusing and much, much smarter than it had any right to be.

There’s quite a bit to those mustard-colored, anti-lingual troublemakers, you know. And believe it or not, they just found themselves front and center in what has to be one of the best mainstream movies of the summer -- if not the entire 2015 calendar year.

My Score:

Three and a Half Tofu Dogs out of Four 


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