★ ★ ★ ★
After walking out of the ocean following a massive, mustard-colored parthenogenesis, the minions — those oblong, chattery homunculi from the Despicable Me series — decide to attach themselves to one bad guy after another, usually with disastrous results for their bosses. They mean well, the minions; it’s just that their enthusiasm to serve usually means overlooking key details, such as the fact that a vampire might not appreciate a sudden drawing of the curtains at noon, even if it does add pizzazz to a birthday surprise. After accidentally letting down a T. rex, a pharaoh, and Napoleon, the minions slink off to an Arctic exile, where they grow listless in the absence of being someone’s lackey — until one day, the tall, pineapple-haired Kevin (voiced, as is every minion, by co-director Pierre Coffin) declares he’s venturing out into the world to seek another master. He assembles a team consisting of one-eyed Stuart, who brings his ukulele, and the babyish Bob, who brings his teddy bear. Oh, and one banana. They’ll probably be hungry later.
This amiable prequel follows Kevin, Stuart, and Bob as they bumble along and burble to each other in their semi-European nonsense language (whole stretches are told in nothing but Minionese and pantomime) as their journeys ultimately bring them to New York City in 1968. It’s there that a mysterious television broadcast clues them in to a convention for villains taking place in Orlando (a place depicted, pre-Disney World, as a dark and swampy wasteland), where they meet keynote speaker Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock) and her mod husband Herb (Jon Hamm, his voice delightfully unrecognizable). Scarlett would be thrilled to take on their lost tribe as her own flunkeys, provided they do just one itsy-bitsy job for her: steal the royal crown from Queen Elizabeth II (Jennifer Saunders).
It’s not really a compliment to describe a movie as “forgettable,” but considering how some so-called family films carve a deep, unwanted groove in one’s memory bank with cloying songs, transparent plot twists, and what must be a contractually mandated minimum of fart jokes, it’s refreshing how Minions shows up, gives the audience a good time, and discreetly disappears from their attention. Some gags might be saucy, in a European sort of way, but they’re never crass. (It’s also never adequately explained why the innocuous minions are so attracted to evil, but they’re so blameless it’s easy to forgive their ethical confusion.) And while film critics love to be highfalutin and give lightweight movies false gravity by comparing them to weighty forebears, it isn’t overthinking it to see Minions’ “slapstick is the universal language” laughs as a legitimate heir to Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton. But enough of that kind of talk! Minions is as simpleminded and pure-hearted as its little yellow protagonists, and that’s all it needs to be.