Review: ‘Minions’ delivers incredible sight gags, but little heart

Sequels are never easy, especially in animation.  Even with all the success Pixar has enjoyed with the “Toy Story” franchise there are few who felt the follow ups to “Cars” and “Monsters, Inc” lived up to even the conceptual charm of the originals.  DreamWorks Animation pulled off rare successes with “Kung Fu Panda 2” and “How To Train Your Dragon 2,” but let”s avoid diving into the unnecessary chapters of the “Madagascar” universe, shall we?  And as for 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky”s “Ice Age” series, those three sequels are almost the textbooks for fashioning strict consumer product just to sell tickets.  The pitfalls of making a spin-off without creative justification is what Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment hoped to avoid with their new “Despicable Me” prequel, “Minions,” and they mostly succeeded.

Yes, those adorable little yellow Minions who became the secret stars of both 2010″s “Despicable Me” and 2012″s “Despicable Me 2” are back in an original tale which is an origin story at its heart.  If you assumed Gru had manufactured these goofy creatures on his own you”d be sadly mistaken.  “Minions” immediately wants viewers to know its stars evolved from single cell organisms and first walked the earth during the age of the dinosaurs.  They instinctively gravitated to serving the most fiendish villain possible, which gave them a T-Rex as their first boss.  Over the centuries they worked for Cavemen, Egyptian Pharaohs and even Napoleon.  How the Minions have lived for thousands of years is never explained, but it certainly allows for some funny sight gags. A creative direction that quickly becomes director Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda”s no. 1 priority.

“Minions” lives and dies on its sight gags and luckily for Coffin and Balda they are almost non-stop.  It”s actually hard to think of any comedy – live action or otherwise – that contains so many inventive visual punch lines.  There is a script by Brian Lynch (“Puss in Boots”) that centers on our three heroes, Kevin, Bob and Stuart, but it all really serves to set up some incredibly smart gags that have the universal appeal of a classic Looney Tunes cartoon.

The storyline finds Kevin, Bob and Stuart leaving the Minions” hideaway in the Great White North in order to find the group a new villain to work for. It”s been centuries since they screwed up under the little French Emperor and not only are the Minions unmotivated, but it appears as though they are clinically depressed over the lack of evil in their lives.  The trio hit 1968 New York where Morel and his crew are finally begin throwing out animated one-liners that parents will enjoy even more than their children.  After discovering Villain Con (exactly what it sounds like) by chance, the boys (we”ll assume they are male because of their names) find themselves in the employ of the self described World”s First Female Super Villain, Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock).   

The scene quickly shifts to Overkill”s headquarters in London where she has a very specific mission for her new Minions. And if they happen to fail in making Overkill”s childhood dream come true?  The villainess isn”t as scary as “The Little Mermaid”s” Ursula or “The Lion King”s” Scar, but she certainly isn”t as friendly as she looks either.

Again, the plot serves only as a mechanism to the cascade of sight gags.  Many are fairly obvious, but the commitment Morel and his animators have to creating one visual joke after another is almost overwhelming.  There is so much going on you wonder if it”s too much for kids to even take in on one sitting (how lucky for Universal). 

What”s really missing, however, is the tenderness and heart that made the “Despicable Me” movies such beloved surprises.  Yes, by the second film the Minions had officially stolen the show, but it”s always been Gru”s relationship with his adopted daughters that truly made these movies work.  Coffin and Lynch try to inject the flick with a heartbeat at the end, but it feels slightly flat in context.

Coffin once again provides the voices for all of the Minions and perhaps the fact they are in the spotlight of an entire feature made it more obvious than before that their “own language” is really a mash up of French, Spanish, English and perhaps a few other European languages.  Bullock is quite good as Overkill, but the real surprise is Jon Hamm as her husband, Herb.  Hamm is so transformed vocally you can”t even place that it”s him.  Both deserve credit for making sure their characters didn”t overstay their welcome and leaving the audience actually wanting slightly more.  Jennifer Saunders delivers a saucy Queen of England and Michael Keaton and Allison Janney inject some energy early on as the heads of an unassuming family on their way to Villain Con.

And, yes, the Hall H mention during the Villain Con scenes, a reference to San Diego Comic-Con, was beyond spot on.

“Minions” is already playing select markets around the world but opens nationwide on July 10.