Hollywood lives by the simple, sad axiom "Where there's money, there's more money," which is how we get remakes of movies that sometimes shouldn't have been made in the first place, two Spider-Man reboots within five years, and a Star Wars franchise that ensures our children's children will revere George Lucas just as some of us revere Orson Welles. It's also the reason the Minions — those tiny, noisily charismatic henchmen of the Despicable Me pictures — get their own movie. On the plus side, that movie boasts the elegantly spare title Minions, which suits these pint-sized hellions in all their Rogaine-haired, googly-eyed, minimalist majesty. But should these peripatetic cold capsules brimming with mischief/mayhem be expected to carry a star vehicle on their collective, overall-wearing shoulders? Is that a burden too great even for the Minions, mighty as they are, to bear?
Sadly, the answer is "banana." Which, in Minionspeak, can mean a lot of things, but in plain English means simply that our little friends aren't quite up to the task. That's no fault of the Minions themselves, true pros who clearly give their all. It may not even be fully the fault of director Pierre Coffin, who, with Chris Renaud, also directed the brilliantly disreputable 2010 caper that started it all, as well as its almost-as-enjoyable 2013 sequel. But something is off in Minions, which Coffin co-directed with Kyle Balda. (The screenwriter is Brian Lynch, new to the franchise.) This is an origin story, explaining how the naughty but dutiful Minions were for centuries a dejected, displaced people: Since the beginning of time — or at least since the days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth — they've been searching for just the right villain to serve, with little to no success. They worked with Dracula for a while, before inadvertently frying him. Napoleon turned out to be a bad fit too — you're a total loser if you still have a Napoleon complex when you've got the Minions to push around.
Even after attempting to build their own civilization, the Minions, with no one truly evil to lead them, became sad. So three stalwart Minions, Kevin, Bob and Stuart (all voiced by Coffin), leave the kingdom in search of a proper supervillain to latch onto. Their quest eventually takes them to London in 1968, where they become enchanted with Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock), a bouffant-haired baddie in a poufy red strapless dress that nobody cool would have actually worn in 1968 London. (Luckily, her not-quite-as-evil husband, Herb, voiced by Jon Hamm, makes up for that sartorial faux pas with his lanky pinstriped suit and Ray Davies haircut.) Flattered by the Minion trio's attentions, Scarlett gives them an assignment: to steal the Queen of England's crown so that our villainess may fulfill her childhood dream of wearing it.
Chattering and nattering, Kevin, Bob and Stuart make an unholy mess of the whole thing: Bob screws up and becomes king himself; Stuart repeats the word "banana" so often that it ceases to become adorable; and Kevin, the leader, rushes around on little legs, doing Minionesque things.
It's all perfectly okay, and even, at times, delightful: Minions is dotted with clever sight gags, including a scene of early Minions scampering about on prehistoric Earth, wearing little fig leaves — covering what, exactly? Your guess is as good as mine. Later, at Buckingham Palace, one rides a corgi as if it were a chubby horse. At one point the trio tries to pass for human by standing atop one another's shoulders and topping the whole wobbly stack with a trench coat, in a possible homage to an old Little Rascals routine. Surely, the Minions must know the Little Rascals backwards and forwards. But even if they don't, the moment that coat opens at chest level and two Minion eyes peer out, flashing like high beams, is inspired.
Yet Minions doesn't add up to all that it should. It tries mightily to replicate the retro-cool look of the earlier movies, but the grooviness here feels a little forced, with pop references from Bewitched to Andy Warhol's tomato soup cans wedged in tight. The biggest problem may be that Scarlett Overkill makes an uninspiring villain. As world-class meanies go, she's shrieky and demanding but has nothing on Despicable Me's ignobly alluring Gru (Steve Carell), who makes an appearance, as his younger self, just as the end credits are about to roll: In his Euro turtleneck and drainpipe trousers, and with his phony-0x00ADbaloney Russian accent, Gru is still a marvel of so-bad-he's-good character design that can't be trumped.
There's something else, too: Minions, as rambunctiously enchanting as they are, are probably best scattered in the margins of a movie, like loopy, wayward doodles. They lose some of their magic when they're front and center, onscreen almost every minute. Minions isn't a disaster; it's probably just too much of a potentially good thing. The Despicable Me pictures, instead of trying to return adults to a false state of innocence, reminded us that we all started out as ill-mannered little savages. The Minions, eager to serve their crabby master as he plotted evil deeds like stealing the moon, were the jittery embodiment of that idea, a population of excitable shrimps with energy to burn. They went about their business without caring whether we were looking or not. Now they care desperately, and desperation doesn't suit them. The Minions are now putting on a performance just for us, like kids acting out. They make us feel like responsible parents, enduring their antics until we're forced to say something sensible like "You kids pipe down!" or "That's it — no more Trix for you!" They're killjoys of the highest order. Still pretty cute, though.