Bad movies are one thing. We know how to deal with them. But Minions isn't bad, exactly. It's perfectly neutral - the most impressively flavorless movie in many a long age. I've found preparing to review it has been something of an exciting race against the clock: would I be able to finish writing before every last memory I had of the experience of watching it had evaporated away? Given how hard it was to remember the beginning of the movie by the end of it, dear reader, I was not optimistic.

The film is a point-missing prequel to 2010's Despicable Me and 2013's Despicable Me 2 that contradicts the back-story heavily implied by the first of those movies, on top of the greater sin of fundamentally messing up the tonal balance that drove both of them. Basically, this is what happens when you put the comic sidekicks in the driver's seat. Instead of the little yellow capsule-shaped, gibberish-spouting minions serving as a enjoyably wacky, old-school cartoon way of leavening the slightly more sincere A-plot (as in DM1), or threatening to overwhelm the A-plot entirely and sort of making the whole thing a bit of a screechy annoyance (as in DM2), here they're the whole show. It's exactly like the difference between having a few cookies in between bites of a not-very-healthy meal, versus just straight-up unlocking your jaw an pouring a whole fucking bag of sugar down your throat, right down to the jitteriness and the headache at the end of it.

Minions opens at the dawn of life on Earth, with one of its very best sequences: the minions evolving from yellow unicellular organisisms clinging with enthusiasm to a bigger, meaner unicellular organism, and so on through the early history of evolution. It's in a style that looks like chalk drawings, skipping through time in a series of fluid "in-camera" edits, a great piece of mixed-media playfulness that of course descends into standard-issue CGI the second that the opening credits stop, and Geoffrey Rush pipes up on the soundtrack to narrate how minions evolved to pursue and serve the cruelest villain alive at any moment in history, eventually finding their true calling when mankind came into existence. And I will say this: to hell with narration (and the sequence would definitely play better if it were told entirely through images and editing), but there's absolutely no better choice than Rush for the slightly acidic warmth that gives the narration a sense of stately authority while also indulging the rampant silliness of the humor.

Anyway, the film posits that after accidentally killing Napoleon, the minions fled to the arctic to build their own society, and eventually found themselves on the verge of death by boredom, without any bad guys to serve. So in 1968, one of the wisest of them all, Kevin (voiced, like all the minions, by co-director Pierre Coffin), decides to go on a mission to find a boss, accompanied by the childlike moron Bob and the snotty Stuart - and before I completely get out of the habit of complimenting the film, kudos to writer Brian Lynch, to directors Coffin and Kyle Balda, and all the animators for creating three totally distinct personalities, instantly readable and flawlessly distinctive despite the fact that all three are identically-dressed yellow tubes with googly eyes.

The three minions arrive in New York, and travel thence to Orlando, amusingly sketched out as a pre-Disney hell of swampland and barely visible roads, and here they attend Villain Con. A spot of good luck puts them in touch with Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock), the world's first female supervillain, who takes them on as her henchmen for a plot to steal the crown jewels of England. And somewhere in all of that, Minions burns off all the charm of its characters, and its brightly colored, highly angular design, and the way that design fits neatly into the stylistic ethos of the 1960s, and pretty much every other damn thing that gives it an ounce of personality. In essence, the film has no momentum of any sort: scenes happen, we hear one of the many incongruous celebrity voices studded into the movie (Steve Coogan, Allison Janney, a totally wasted Michael Keaton), some gags modeled on the slapstick MGM animation of the '40s or the absurdist Warner animation of the '50s. Then the cycle restarts. At no point does a sense of inevitability take over; there's barely even a sense of continuity about things, especially in the astonishingly arbitrary middle section when the minions wander around trying to find the crown and then- but even a barely-plotted collection of wacky shorts tied together more by proximity than anything else deserves better than to be spoiled, I guess.

The most annoying thing about Minions is that it has just enough individual pieces that are terrific in isolation that it's really not possible to discard the whole. The opening credits are on obvious place where the animation takes such a swerve that I can't help but love it, and the same is true of a mid-film bedtime story in faux-claymation with appealingly goofy character design and an acerbic, abrupt sense of humor. There are moments in which the even the bog-standard CG animation is suddenly and powerfully beautiful and detailed in texture and lighting.

And there are comic highlights throughout, one or two minutes of a stretch where the ludicrous illogic of the storytelling turns into something close enough to the classic cartoon shorts that are plainly never far from the filmmakers' minds that you can see them if you squint. The same lack of cohesion or building momentum that makes the overall movie a slog is, in fact, something of a strength at the micro level: the villain convention, for example, is such an odd and off-putting narrative element, but it's responsible for some of the most effective dashes of zany jokes in the whole movie.

But I'm hunting for nice things to say towards a movie about which it's hard to feel anything at all. Uncharitably, I'd say that Minions is a film that expects its viewer to have a stunted attention span. It jumps around so much in search of loud, simple gags that you never have to worry about paying attention. Were I being kind, I'd say that it simply knows its target audience: little kids who want to be dazzled for 90 minutes while laughing at straightforward jokes. Still and all, "it does a good job pandering to children" is hardly the stuff of praise and even if I aged out of the right mindset to really meet the film where it lives a solid quarter-century ago, I like to think that I still know profoundly mediocre filmmaking when I see it.

Reviews in this series
Despicable Me (Coffin & Renaud, 2010)
Despicable Me 2 (Coffin & Renaud, 2013)
Minions (Coffin & Balda, 2015)
Despicable Me 3 (Coffin & Balda and Guillon, 2017)