Let’s be frank. Despite gorgeous mixed-style animations, an inspired best-of-the-60s soundtrack, and ingenious slapstick set-pieces that would make Jack Sparrow drool; Minions is not a great film. It’s not even the strongest film in its franchise – that would be Despicable Me which, as an international Super villain adopts three orphans, takes the trope of a cold-hearted careerist warming to the initially dubious joys of parenthood to a new extreme. But while the infamous Gru and his trio of adorable orphan girls might be armed with a genuinely heart-warming story arc, their celebrity pales in comparison to the gang of “balding, jaundiced children” who accomplice their travails. The masters have been totally eclipsed by the rising star of their own servants.
The Minions are undeniably a phenomenon. But can their meteoric rise to fame simply be put down to simplistic, marketable cuteness, or the fact that Gru is, conventionally, far less easy on the eyes than his adorable denim-draped chums? There is something disarmingly relatable about these tiny saffron multitudes, and therein lies the charm of Minions.
The story unfolds thus; the Minions have evolved as symbiotic organisms that will graft themselves onto the most “evil” master available to them in any historical epoch. This starts innocently enough, as they mob a t-rex and an abominable snowman, but once man enters the scene the real carnage begins. The yellow mob establish themselves as the foot soldiers of some of history’s greatest tyrants, including the Pharaohs and Napoleon – though the film foes neatly sidestep the sensitive issue of what the Minions, desperate to serve evil, did during the Holocaust, by exiling them to an ice cavern for the first 60 years of the 20th century. Or maybe I was the only one who that even occurred to.
Anyway, upon arriving in a beautiful pastiche 1960s, our canary comrades find themselves aligned with Scarlet Overkill, the world’s first female Super villain, as she plots to pilfer the crown jewels. Needless to say the heist goes awry – but through a set of beautifully irreverent satirical circumstances Bob, the smallest Minion, becomes King by lifting the sword from the stone (which, in the scheme of things is shown as relatively sane in a time warped pseudo-democracy that still clings a hereditary head of state)! Of course, things have to restore themselves to a regular state of abnormality by the end of the film, being set in a past grounded in a bizarre reality, but that’s not without further enjoyable digs at the British establishment, including tea-swilling police pursuits and a television reporter “too polite” to say anything negative about an out-dated and out-of-control system of monarchy that hands absolute power to a criminal mastermind in the course of the film.
Through it all there’s a Python-esque honesty portrayed through the farcical capers, which I find particularly admirable in a children’s film, when the majority of the genre depicts hereditary autocrats as benevolent and wise servants of their subjects needs. Here though, Queen Elizabeth herself is portrayed as just a person, frankly a bit of a beer monster at that, with no special plan, no poignant advice to our little yellow heroes. She watches events unfold at the pub “on the telly”, unconcerned with the plight of anything but her own liver.
I won’t say much more about the plot, other than to give mention to some fabulously brutal slap-stick, which has the majority of the adults wincing, and their offspring giggling rapturously, as to be honest, the story isn’t really that important. And for a summer holiday treat for the kids, that is fine. What interests me about the Minions is not their origins per se, I’m not looking to perform a Marxian analysis of the economic system of their snow-cave city, I’m not even that intrigued by their breeding habits (though they do seem to multiply infinitely without any identifiable genitalia). I am intrigued by what their now iconic status says about us, the audience.
Those little babbling bundles of banana-loving joy are a million times more relatable than the majority of popular protagonists in modern cinema, without being able to speak any discernible language (although I am no expert, so I sincerely apologise if it turns out Minions speak your native tongue and I’ve just labelled it gibberish). What makes them such a signifier for our times? Stumbling about the wastelands, in a world where they have been taught to bend to the will of others to survive, the Minions are alienated from their own capacity to create and fulfil their own narratives and needs, placing them in an eternal search for some impossible benevolent bourgeois big other to give their lives a purpose. In reality, there is no ideological Mary Poppins waiting for them, and those they end up serving tend to be far less competent than the vibrant and innovative collective of the Minions themselves, just as there is no cuddle, caring Richard Branson-type out there waiting to give you the perfect job; to exploit your labour in a way that you find fulfilling.
The Minions are so popular with us, because the embody us. In all their chaotic, imperfect, illogical hilarity, they are “ordinary people” – but in a way so much more meaningful than when some insincere New Labour shit (Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, etc) waxes lyrical about caring for the common man. The definition of ordinary people in mainstream political rhetoric is usually narrow, and topically excludes whichever vulnerable group MPs fancy giving a good punting on that day (single mothers, the disabled, Muslims, and so on) in order to make the rest of us feel some collectivised spite toward them. The commonality here though, is that Minions come in a multitude of absurd and misshapen forms, and yet they strive to keep each other alive and happy in a generally hostile world despite this. They show that being ordinary can in fact be quite extraordinary then, with their class position unifying them despite their differences, and though in the confines of the film world, they subject themselves to a new master eventually, he is really just adopted as a first amongst equals of their class. Compared to the stylish and successful Scarlet, Gru is essentially just another of them, an outcast from the upper crust of criminality. He’s basically just a really ugly Minion. In the end then, in the universe of Despicable Me, the Minions learn to trust themselves over the whims of some out-of-touch power-hungry autocrat (just as hopefully we can see through the charade of the British monarchy through the lenses of this film) to define their own collective destiny. It is wonderfully diverse, adventurous and bizarre life they shape, in a way a life of simple class-based servitude would never have allowed. There’s a lesson for all of us extraordinary ordinary people in there, somewhere.