Underlings' prequel lacks Despicable edge

Underlings' prequel lacks Despicable edge
HORRIBLE BOSS: (From left) Stuart, Kevin and Bob (all voiced by Coffin) are in over their banana-shaped heads when they are hired by supervillain Scarlet (Bullock) for a dastardly plot to overthrow the British monarchy, in a spin-off to the Despicable Me films.PHOTO: UIP

The word "minion" is derived from the French word mignon. It means "small and cute", which would be an apt description for the heroes of Illumination Entertainment's prequel spin-off to its Despicable Me films.

According to co-producer Janet Healy, part of their universal appeal is due to them being "ageless and without a specific language". Much like Wall-E, Ice Age's Scratt and silent-film stars like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, they endear themselves to audiences all over the world through slapstick humour.

After stealing the show in Despicable Me (2010) and the 2013 Academy Award nominated sequel, starring in their own rides at Universal Studios theme parks, lending their name to a Pantone colour and compelling Singaporeans to queue for Happy Meal toys of them, the popcorn kernel-shaped critters are finally getting their own movie.

The protagonists of this origin story have distinct personalities - Sigmund Freud's id, ego and super-ego personified. There's the sagacious Kevin who always has the future of his tribe in mind; the laidback Stuart who is along for the ride; and Bob, the wide-eyed innocent who loves unconditionally.

They speak Minionese, a hodgepodge of gibberish with snatches of Italian, Japanese and even Malay thrown in (yes, there's a loanword or two from our national language). The production notes explain that this international etymology is due to the Minions having served many masters across the earth.

Co-director Pierre Coffin, who voices the Minions, says "you don't understand their words... but you do understand when they're in a position of conflict, if they're sad or if they're happy". The readability of their expressions and gestures is a testament to the animators' talent.

Regrettably, the story of the Minions' quest for a chief seems like an afterthought. The screenplay by Brian Lynch (Puss In Boots, 2011) has no character development nor arc for the three protagonists, unlike Steve Carrell's Gru, whose journey from baddie to daddy forms the narrative backbone of the previous films.

Scarlet has great motivation as a character driven by revenge and power - her tragic backstory told through an adorable stop-motion-animated bedtime story - but she becomes increasingly petulant and less of a threat towards the end.

Bullock voices the Minions' new employer with aplomb, but her character - fawned over by the world's meanest - isn't all she's cracked up to be. When other animated baddies are capable of subjugation (A Bug's Life, 1998), regicide (Frozen, 2013) and massacres (Kung Fu Panda 2, 2011), her kleptomania and goal of staging a British coup d'etat pale in comparison.

This harmless brand of villainy extends to Michael Keaton's (Toy Story 3, 2010) career criminal, who gives the Minions a lift to Villain Con. His family of bank robbers have an arsenal, including a bazooka, to arm a small country, but when the cops show up, they use paintball guns instead.

A reluctance to go the whole hog in heinousness is understandable, the film being a family-friendly comedy. But when the previous instalments had antagonists kidnapping girls and disfiguring the Minions to take over the world, the knaves here feel tame in comparison.

Humour is the film's strength: there are cheeky visual gags, most involving indecent exposure, and gallows humour (which gets literal at one point) involving a few characters getting killed in outlandish Looney Tunes fashion.

Jon Hamm (Mad Men, 2007-2015) as Herb, Scarlet's husband and partner in crime; Jennifer Saunders (Shrek 2, 2004) as a spunky Queen Elizabeth II and Geoffrey Rush (Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga'Hoole, 2010) as the narrator deliver good performances.

Composer Heitor Pereira, who worked on the Despicable Me films, returns with a serviceable score. Viewers of a certain age or taste might enjoy the totally groovy 60s numbers like Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze and The Turtles' Happy Together.

While the Despicable Me films explored poignant themes like single parenthood and mid-life crises, the Minions' first solo outing does not have anything meaningful to say.

Not that the fans would mind, though. The Minions might be willing slaves, but we are the ones enthralled by them.


Comedy/91 minutes/Opens today

Rating: 3/5

The story: Since the dawn of time, a Minion's raison d'etre has been to serve a master. But after centuries of short-lived terms of servitude - due to their incompetence killing their bosses - the tribe of jaundiced creatures are at their wit's end. In a last-ditch attempt in 1968, three Minions - the wise Kevin, mellow Stuart and naive Bob - volunteer to search for a new leader while the rest hold the fort.

At Villain Con - a convention for evildoers - they meet the world's first female supervillain, Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock). Through sheer luck, the trio win a contest to be her lackeys, but soon realise they got more than they bargained for when she assigns them an impossible mission - and the penalty for failure is their termination in every sense of the word.


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