Just the other day, my little brother dragged me to see the Minions movie and that got me thinking about the franchise in general. As someone who has seen and enjoyed both Despicable Me films (the first a lot more than its sequel), Minions felt like a significant (yet wholly expected) step down in terms of quality. This certainly wasn’t the case when it came to box office draw as it easily outperformed the previous films in the franchise and smashed some records of its own. This is a movie that was destined to make a lot of money mostly due to how insanely marketable the Minions have become, and its clear from the progression of their role in these movies that the creators know this. At first they were fun side characters that remained peripheral to the plot, then they became central to the plot of the second film as the villain’s plan revolved around them, and then they finally received their own movie. With steadily increasing box-office numbers to coincide with this shift, this is what I’d characterize as a “Hostile Franchise Take-Over” (or an HFT for short), and in this article I’m going to look at how this has affected the movies in the franchise.
The first Despicable Me film had something the others did not: A heart. At the centre of this fun supervillain flick was a beating heart that was passionate about the subject of being a parent. This was illustrated through the contrast between Gru (Steve Carell), the film’s protagonist whose life is turned upside down when he adopts three adorable orphans, and Vector (Jason Segel) and his father who are related by blood but relate to one another poorly. It was a fun family romp, with the Minions featured as funny little side characters that appeared throughout. The second film of the series focused on Gru’s love life which amounted to his relationship with Lucy (voiced by Kristen Wiig basically acting as Lola Bunny from The Looney Tunes Show), the woman he would marry by the film’s end. Though there are slight attempts to deal with actual emotion, this sequel definitely gives the sense that the franchise has begun to stop caring, and it focuses on what all kids were laughing at in the first film. The Minions are at the centre of this film’s plot, and their role is expanded upon greatly which I find is to the film’s detriment. They aren’t very intelligent and we can’t really understand them, so most of what we draw from them is superficial. Nowhere is this flaw more apparent than in the film that focuses almost exclusively on them, Minions.
Minions mostly pays attention to three specific Minions in their quest to find a suitable master for their race. The majority of the film’s run time is dedicated to them try to be cute, dumb, and funny, and the only attempt at heart the writers try to add to the picture is making one of them homesick for a scene or two. The unfortunate truth of it is that the Minions themselves are paper thin characters, and that’s all they’re capable of ever being of if they are to stay true to their characters. This means that the entire affair lives and dies on the strength of its human characters, and the most significant human character in this film is Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock). Bullock showed her comedy chops before in Demolition Man where she starred alongside Sylvester Stallone, but here she sounds like she is finally allowed to cut loose. She’s totally game for the insanity of this film’s world, and the premise to her character is great, but the execution falls flat. Still though, the concept itself holds a lot of promise. Essentially, Scarlet Overkill is a loser. Not just any loser, but the type of loser who never got over being a loser as a kid, which followed her into adulthood and inspired her to commit crimes to “fill the void”. Her fixation on stealing the crown and being made Queen of the UK comes from her desire to show everyone who ever doubted her as a kid how great she is, and in a sense, everything she does as the world’s first female villain (and current best in the film’s 1960’s setting) is to fight opponents from the past that probably forgot about her a long time ago. It’s all a little… overkill, and that’s great, but the problem is that all this never culminates into anything in the film. Her entire character arc feels half-finished and I feel that this is because she had no suitable human characters to work off of besides her supportive husband (played by a very 60’s Jon Hamm). Her opponents were the Minions, which are basically dumb animals and whose involvement in the plot makes little sense to begin with. She uses them to steal the crown, which is odd since she’s more than demonstrated to be capable of doing so on her own which makes the very foundation for the events of the story shaky at best. Worst however is that the Minions offer no real resolution to her character, and instead, the film ends with them honouring the original film in the franchise in a big way. Unfortunately, this comes off as hollow since this film feels like a death knell for the old Despicable Me. There may be a third film in the franchise planned, but with the success of the Minions movie and the path in which the series has been going, I seriously doubt its focus won’t be completely obscured by those cackling yellow gibberish monsters.
Something that surprised me about this film is by the end of it my little brother (who is totally obsessed with the Minions by the way) told me his favourite part of the film was actually Scarlet Overkill, the only character in the movie with a semblance of real personality. He even went as far as to tell me he preferred the other films in the franchise to this one, which is a huge shock to anyone who knows him. He loved those dumb Minions and their dumb antics more than anyone, but even he’s able to recognize the importance of character and story in animated films (even if he isn’t consciously aware of it). With the Minions strong arming their way to the centre of this franchise’s attention, there has been a sharp increase in profitability, and a steady decline in creative merit. These creatures are shallow and empty, but are good for quick thoughtless laughs. They’re like the junk food of animated characters, and their rise represents a stagnation in this series’ creative force. Minions begins with the evolution of its titular creatures into land walking beings, but the movie itself is a sign of the franchise it belongs to devolving into less than what it could be, which ironically makes it more “despicable” than any film with that word in its title.
Quote of the Day:
“I found a 24-hour place for coffee. Remember that bookstore? Well they became one of those books –and- coffee places, and now they’re just coffee. It’s like evolution only without the getting better part.”
Anya Jenkins, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.