Despicable Me 3: how do you solve a problem like the Minions?

The slapstick-obsessed munchkins are becoming less and less amusing. 

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How do you solve a problem like the Minions? Without resorting, that is, to fantasies of a sledgehammer rampage to eradicate the little blighters.

It is difficult now to remember a time when the landscape of family entertainment wasn’t dominated and overrun by these helium-voiced, gobbledygook-spouting, custard-coloured wannabe Weebles. They first appeared in 2010 in Despicable Me, a computer-animated comedy about the petty, insecure Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), who plans to steal the moon to establish himself as the world’s foremost super-villain, but still has to deal with humdrum problems such as the neighbour’s dog using his garden as a toilet.

The vulnerable villain idea was done with more flair the same year in Megamind, and probably has its roots in Mike Myers’s Austin Powers series, where the character of Dr Evil was forever being made a laughing stock by his inability to catch up with the modern world after decades in the cryogenic deep-freeze. (He demands $1m to not destroy the planet, only to be informed politely that this really isn’t very much in today’s money.)

Thanks to Carell’s comically deflated line readings, Despicable Me was tolerable and even occasionally funny – except, that is, for those scenes featuring the Minions, Gru’s workforce of tiny helpers, some with one eye, others with two, all wearing magnifying goggles and dungarees, with the occasional baseball cap. (There’s a definite Teamsters vibe to them.) The Minions are all slapstick: they babble and fall over, they get things wrong, they make a mess. No wonder they are such a hit with pre-schoolers. But the idea of having comic relief in a film that is already a comedy rather exemplifies the gilding-the-lily approach animation studio Illumination takes towards its material (though it would be vastly overrating the Despicable Me movies to compare them to lilies, even ones that haven’t been watered in a good while). 

With the recent release of Despicable Me 3, the contemptible creatures now have four hit movies under their tool-belts: Despicable Me (which grossed $543m worldwide), Despicable Me 2 ($970m), the spin-off smash Minions (over $1bn) and the current film, which is at $447m at the time of writing.

Wherever you turn, you can see their merchandise and their memes; the appeal to children of their brand of organised chaos isn’t difficult to fathom. To anyone over the age of ten, however, they are likely to make the shrill screech of nails on a blackboard sound like a Bach concerto. Nonsensical creatures living in their own version of society need not be irritating – it is surely a physical impossibility, after all, to be annoyed by the Clangers. And even the Minions’ most obvious antecedents, the Munchkins, had their part to play in the Technicolor exoticism of The Wizard of Oz.

The Minions, though, seem increasingly divorced from the action of the Despicable Me films, especially the third one, in which they rarely interact with the other characters. They have also started to become alarmingly like adolescent boys, ogling women and hanging out at the beach bar (do they have fake IDs?). This throws up the uncomfortable question of what exactly they think is in it for them. Their eager expressions, and the approving noises they make (not quite “Phwoar!” but not far off), suggest that they are developing libidos, which is a worry: sexualised Minions violate the chaste world that has been created for them, and are sure to spell a new kind of anarchy that this series is in no position to either contain or exploit. (If some depraved sort has already cooked up Minions porn online, I’d rather stay in the dark about it and not have that sort of thing on my search history.)

It is already a problem that the Minions’ creator, Pierre Coffin, confirmed in 2015 that the species is entirely male. “Seeing how dumb and stupid they often are,” he said, “I just couldn’t imagine the Minions being girls.” Forget concerns over how they reproduce or whether any of them are gay. In that one offhand comment Coffin managed to imply that young male members of his audience are idiots while placing pressure on the young female ones to conform to society’s expectation of them as sensible, organised and unable to fail. 

The Minions seem to personify the wild, dispersed subconscious of their master, Gru. While he puts all his energies these days into trying to appear respectable, they blithely run riot. The new film is partly about his effort to stay on the straight and narrow in the face of the temptation to return to villainy; the Minions, meanwhile, end up in prison—another convenient and familiar all-male environment.

If we see them as an expression of Gru’s repressed desires, then perhaps their closest relatives are not the Munchkins so much as the hideous, malevolent, hammer-wielding children in David Cronenberg’s The Brood, which materialise to savagely attack anyone who threatens the wishes of Nola (played by Samantha Eggar), a mother locked in a custody battle with her ex-husband; just as the Minions are the physical manifestation of Gru’s mischievous villainy, so these monsters carry out Nola’s repressed anti-social desires on her behalf. (Cronenberg has described the picture as his version of Kramer Vs Kramer. Both films came out in 1979; they’d make a great compare-and-contrast double-bill.) I have no wish to see any more movies featuring the Minions but I’d make an exception for a crossover project in which they were pitted against the Brood for a fight to the death.

Despcable Me 3 is on release

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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