Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “minion” as “a servile dependent, follower, or underling.” In the case of Minions, a prequel and spin-off of the popular Despicable Me franchise, the overlord isn’t über-baddy Felonius Gru. It’s the money-changing moviemakers mainlining the yellow pill-shaped playthings into the adrenal glands of youngsters—and the wallets of their parents.
Minions isn’t irredeemable, although it toes the line. It’s just lazy—a mashup of moving colors and gibberish that lacks wit or narrative purpose. Like lemmings, the titular anthropomorphic plush toys fall off a creative cliff.
In this origin story, the Minions emerge from the primordial soup genetically predisposed to serve history’s most notorious villains. Star-crossed stints with a Tyrannosaurus, a caveman, an Egyptian pharaoh, Dracula and Napoleon drive the Minions into self-imposed Arctic exile. By 1968, their collective depression compels Kevin, joined by Stuart and the precocious Bob (all voiced by director Pierre Coffin), to venture from their hideaway and locate a new villainous master.
The overalls-clad trio hitches a ride to swampy pre-Disney Orlando, Florida, site of Villain-Con. The keynote speaker is Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), the world’s first female supervillain. Once the Minions win the job as Scarlet’s new henchmen, she flies them to England, with her husband, Herb (Jon Hamm), to steal St. Edward’s Crown. But Scarlet’s coronation dreams are derailed when Bob unwittingly pulls Excalibur from the Stone (don’t ask) and becomes king of England, drawing Scarlet’s ire.
There’s more to the story—an abdication, Yetis, a drunken Queen Elizabeth, a giant Kevin and a snow globe. But what does it matter? The Brit-wit goes no further than the recurring sight of tea-sipping fops, plus Herb’s pinstriped suit. Pop-culture references to Andy Warhol’s soup cans and the Beatles’ Abbey Road cover are shoehorned into ill-fitted spaces, and the setting is merely an excuse to fill the soundtrack with ’60s British rock.
Scarlet is a shrieking, unconvincing and unlikable foil. The best supporting characters are a nuclear family of bank robbers, the parents voiced by Michael Keaton and Allison Janney. But Geoffrey Rush’s narration is useless, and the otherwise charming Minions prove to be unsuitable front-things. Their nonsense speak, interspersed with English exclamations (including, too often, the word “banana”), works best in small doses.
In Despicable Me, the Minions’ amoral, dutiful devotion to Gru was part of their zany charm. Here, they’re full of feelings and self-determination, not exactly the stuff of mindless underlings. The insipid spectacle that results is like Teletubbies meets Mr. Bean, or the fever dreams you have after eating Indian food too close to bedtime. Near the end, a young Gru (Steve Carell) pops up to guide the Minions to their destiny. We’re left with our own preferred destination: somewhere that rents Despicable Me.