The minions, those small yellow sidekicks in goggles and denim dungarees, have so hijacked the “Despicable Me” animated series that Illumination Entertainment has dedicated a third film to the bumbling critters themselves.
Appropriately called “Minions,” the film manages the by-no-means easy feat of turning sidekicks into full-blown protagonists. Screenwriter Brian Lynch and co-directors Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda do this by resorting to wacky slapstick even the Three Stooges might have rejected as overly broad.
Much of this juvenile humor is funny, at least for the young viewers to whom this film is primarily dedicated. Meanwhile adults will enjoy the comic rifts on 1960s Swinging London, where “Minions” — being an origin story of sorts — is set.
Certainly the photorealism of London and its many tourist sites is unusually vivid and detailed. Plus adults and maybe even some youngsters will get a kick out of the dramatic use of classic songs from that era including the Rolling Stones, Kinks, Doors and even the title song from the musical “Hair.”
While minions, you are told in an opening sequence helpfully narrated by Geoffrey Rush, have been around Earth longer than man, and certainly show a proclivity toward rapid species multiplication, the film focuses on only three M-creatures.
These are incorrigible leader Kevin, childlike Bob and one-eyed, slow-thinking Stuart. All three are voiced by Pierre Coffin, who co-directed the first two films.
The minions speak a barely discernible language that occasionally breaks into English (as in “Okay”) or Spanish (as in “Si”) but also mashes up bits of Italian and French.
So this origin story, which also acts as a prequel to the original ‘Despicable Me,” traces the minion lineage through their slavish service to evil doers from prehistory through Napoleon. Their eagerness to serve criminals and tyrants is equalled only by their ineptitude in so doing.
Thus after debacles involving Dracula and then Napoleon the minions find themselves isolated in an ice cave in a frozen clime for a few centuries until sheer and utter boredom threatens them with extinction.
So a minion named Kevin decides to venture out of the ice cave to seek a new evil boss for his brethren to follow. He takes along teenage Stuart and lovable Bob on his quest. They wind up first in New York but then London after a detour to Orlando, Florida.
The minions’ new master goes by the name of Scarlet Overkill, the world’s first female super villain, voiced by Sandra Bullock. Somehow this character never quite comes into focus. For unlike Gru, the Steve Carell-voiced villain of the previous two films, she is not the central figure and indeed pops in and out of the story to suit the animators’ whims.
Scarlet’s scientist-husband Herb (Jon Hamm) actually plays a stronger role and has a gloriously comic scene in which he tries desperately to torture the minions only for all his cruel devices to turn into mere toys to these yellow folk.
Other standout character cameos in the somewhat slapdash story include a family of crooks name Nelson with Michael Keaton voicing the patriarch and Allison Janney as his crime-loving wife; Steve Coogan as both Prof. Flux, inventor of a time machine, and an aging Tower Guard who protects the British crown jewels; and Jennifer Saunders (“Shrek 2”) as a spot-on Queen Elizabeth.
The minions stumble and bumble as always but, given that this is their own movie, show flashes of insight, or perhaps it’s idiot savantry, that demonstrate they can identify areas of self interest. The movie does wander all over the place and you might accuse the animators of padding the story if the padding weren’t such fun.
Among the diversions are an episode of “The Dating Game” where the three candidates are named Kevin, Bob and Stuart, a bedtime story that twists “The Three Little Pigs” into a pretzel and a slo-mo soccer game in the ice cave that demonstrates the degree to which boredom is killing the minion population.
Yet other set pieces such a a climatic chase/fight through greater London between Scarlet and the tiny heroes feels as overblown as an Avengers movie. You gradually understand how Scarlet earned her last name of Overkill.
Still “Minions” is a welcome diversion from the mainline of the “Despicable Me” series, which by the second installment already showed signs of running in place.
“Minions” should give exec producers Christopher Meledandri and Janet Healy and the Illumination crew the needed time to plot where the series can now head and perhaps even turn Gru back to his evil ways. He was always much more fun as a super villain than a dotting dad.
“Despicable Me 3” is due out summer 2017.
Opens: July 10, 2015 (Universal Pictures)
Production company: Illumination Entertainment
Voice Cast: Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Allison Janney, Michael Keaton, Geoffrey Rush, Jennifer Saunders, Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud, Steve Coogan
Directors: Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin
Screenplay: Brian Lynch
Producers: Christopher Meledandri, Janet Healy
Executive producer: Chris Renaud
Production/character designer: Eric Guillon
Music: Heitor Pereira
Editor: Claire Dodgson
PG rating, 91 minutes