The trouble with Minions, the third film in the abnormally successful and assumedly long-living franchise from Illumination Entertainment, is that it kind of works. Moments of whimsy abound, from a charmingly amateurish claymation fable to a breathless opening act as the family of ruler-less assistants, the Minions, hurtle from evil owner to evil owner and helplessly (and accidentally) murder them all. There is a scabrous anti-Disney (and, admittedly, anti-Southern United States) dig that paints Orlando, Florida (home of Disneyland) as a crumbling, lateral murk of weeping swampland sans human activity.
My favorite moment is a wonderful little throwaway joke at the expense of needless military-style text slathered over American movies these days just to make sure we know where we are, even after these films have already informed us where we are via visual cues or dialogue. The moment here isn’t quite as avant-garde as the similar moment in Avengers, where a we are told by a character we are going to a shipyard off the coast of Africa, only to greet an image of a shipyard and, just so we can be absolutely sure we hadn’t wandered into Antarctica, text appears to inform us we are now in merry “Shipyard, Off the Coast of Africa”. But the bit in Minions is definitely more intentionally funny, while I suspect that African shipyard bit in Joss Whedon’s film was merely me searching for, or making up, a saving grace of abstract comedy amidst the boredom.
The animation, too, is absolutely sublime, and sublime in a dexterous, even ambidextrous, multi-purposed way as well. There is a shot of a car with the sunlight cascading through the windows that is as mythic and beautiful as anything you will see in a 2015 film (unless you saw Fury Road, or unless The Revenant is indeed as wonderful as it looks). But Minions is not a film of mere transitive, surface-level beauty without purpose. The relentlessly angular, cartoonish style, for one, is a melding of style and tone that legitimately bolsters the atmosphere of the film in a way it did not for either Despicable Me film. Namely, Minions is marinated in a mile-a-minute pop-art milieu circa swinging ’60s London, and although it does not do nearly enough with this material, the bold, singular colors of the trademark Illumination style meld to this time and place (not necessarily London circa 1968, but the cultural memory of London circa 1968) more purposefully than either Despicable Me film did.
What really surprised me, however, is how Illumination understands the great truth of all Looney Tunes animation: character. However warped and squashed or stretched a Chuck Jones character was, it was always warped in a way that externally formed, and was informed by, the identity of that character. The characters, were, essentially, ideas or emotions boiled down to their core level and hewn into human visages with animation that evoked the abstract, almost synesthetic look of that idea or emotion as it hazily assembled in the mind. Confusing stuff, but Pixar understood it with Inside Out, and Illumination understands it here, creating Kevin, Bob, and Stuart as three distinct characters entirely out of animation gestures and a patois that is, if indecipherable in the abstract, entirely understood in context. More simply put, we understand what the characters are saying even though they do not speak a language we understand, and we understand them because the animation team has envisioned them as whole figures with distinct personality ticks who act out their emotions with not only their mouths but every last portion of their yellow, pill-like bodies.
And yet still, Minions wears increasingly thin over the course of its already anemic run-time. More than in either Despicable Me film, Minions is a Looney Tunes cartoon crammed into the body of a feature-length film, even when that body is plainly not fit for its newfound inhabitants. I adore Looney Tunes and happen to think Chuck Jones is one of the great American directors in any medium, but the material was plainly designed for shorts. Carve out a few minutes of Minions, and the slice of the cake is pleasing, if not revelatory, but the creators simply don’t have the buoyancy and ingenuity to play the acerbically sweet card for their entire production. Certainly, it doesn’t help that Minions was released in the same year as the second feature-length Spongebob film, a work that trumpeted its small-screen, episodic origins but used this lack of narrative throughline as a boon or a challenge rather than a detriment. That film evoked consistent possibility with manic, anarchic cocaine-rush animation style, often sublime physical comedy of the Warner Bros. mold, and seemingly endless, even avant-garde experimentation. It used the fact that it was basically string of episodes shoehorned into a feature film to explore the possibility of episodic storytelling and to tell each episode, essentially, in a different style.
Even that film ran out of steam toward the end though, and Minions doesn’t last even to the halfway point. The narrative, with our three main Minions attempting to find the perfectly evil master to serve until the end of time, devolves into arbitrary nonsense and sideways back-and-forth trade-offs when they meet Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock) and attempt to steal the Crown of England for her. Admittedly, the helter-skelter of the film’s second half provides moments of fleeting fancy, but it plainly seems to be gasping for air by stacking on the hijinks so we don’t notice how arbitrary everything occurring really is. The film almost seems to be struggling to keep itself interested, and it wanders, as if by accident, into a rather nice little smoke-filled “Old London Town” horror-speckled chase scene replete with ghoulish, garish monster types. It is too little, too late though, and it is one more question mark on a film that is too pleasing to dislike, too slapdash to love, too indifferent to respect, and too passionate to fully deny.