Breakout supporting characters in animated films aren’t a new phenomenon. Scene-stealers have existed in some capacity from as far back as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In recent years, though, with Hollywood’s desire to make every successful film into a franchise, these scene-stealers have become prime candidates for brand extensions. Pixar tried it with Cars 2, DreamWorks went further with Penguins of Madagascar, and now Illumination is spinning off the Minions from Despicable Me into, well, Minions.
The problem with this sort of brand extension is that tends to dilute what makes the characters work in the first place. In the case of the Minions, they served to provide Despicable Me with sources of unbridled amusement. Their breakout success in that feature made their increased prominence in Despicable Me 2 understandable, which helped balance out some of the weaker elements of that entry. Here, though, the Minions are more than goofy supporting characters. A trio of them – Kevin, Bob and Stuart (all voiced by Pierre Coffin) – serve as the leads, which means that they have to be more than comical.
To set this trio apart from the horde of Minions normally shown, the film first sets up an origin story. We see the Minions emerge from the ocean, almost exactly in the same form they exist in the 21st century (the only thing missing would be the blue overalls, acquired during the film), and pretty much instantly looking for an evil master to serve. The Minions then, in quick order, bumble their way through a series of supervillains that tend to meet their demise at the hands of these little weirdos. After killing off one master too many, the Minions are forced into isolation, where they eventually begin to suffer without a master at hand. Sensing their need for a new supervillain, Kevin decides to strike out to find someone for the Minions to serve. Stuart is selected to join him mainly because he’s not paying attention, while the childlike Bob insists on tagging along.
The trio eventually make their way to New York City, circa 1968, where they hear about the secret Villain-Con in Orlando (which is, given the time, a pre-Disney swampland) and the biggest new supervillain, Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock). And while the film up until this point is a little dicey, there’s a certain charm that’s lost once Scarlet is introduced. Part of the charm of the Minions is their anarchic spirit, which in the Despicable Me films works with the quasi-evil Gru. Scarlet, however, is straight-up evil, and is far less humorous or loving than Gru. It makes it harder to swallow that the Minions would blindly follow whoever happens to be the most evil. There’s also the problem of the rest of the Minions, who are kept separated from the core trio for most of the film. The problem is that their scenes add little to the narrative, but are far funnier as a group than Kevin, Bob and Stuart are as individuals.
Given that Minions was originally scheduled for a November 2014 release, until the unexpected success of Despicable Me 2 saw Universal push it to summer 2015, this film feels more like a placeholder for the inevitable Despicable Me 3 that capitalizes on the most marketable characters. And that, in and of itself, isn’t bad. But the final product not only dilutes these characters, but it threatens to weaken the franchise in the long run. Kids will (likely) enjoy this, while parents may finally have their Minion fill. Let’s just hope the inevitable success of the film doesn’t lead to Minions 2.