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10 July 2024

The Despicable Me phenomenon

How the hectic Minions franchise, optimised for a child’s attention span, became a blockbuster hit.

By David Sexton

Despicable Me is the highest-grossing animated franchise in cinema history. There have been six feature films since the first arrived in 2010, including two prequels, Minions of 2015 and Minions: The Rise of Gru of 2022: the latter generated almost $1bn worldwide. Video games, theme-park rides  and 18 short films have swelled the take.

Despicable Me has helped make the production company Illumination a rival to Pixar and DreamWorks. The company’s 14 previous feature films have each cost on average only $60m-80m to produce, but have raked in an average of $700m at the box office.

The original Despicable Me remains entrancing, such a fresh discovery of the characters that have now turned into familiars. The super-villain Gru, beginning as a properly evil Dracula type, touchingly develops over the film into a loving stepfather for the three little orphan girls he recruits for criminal purposes. The Minions, now such a mighty meme, were only added in the course of production. Designed by the Paris-based animation studio Mac Guff, which Illumination now owns, they were first conceived as robots or humans, before they became these basic yellow blobs with goggles, spouting a nonsensical language, voiced by the French-Indonesian actor and director Pierre Coffin. Eager to serve but daft, Minions are the only politically acceptable servant joke remaining in contemporary culture.

Despicable Me 4 is a hectic anthology of gags rather than a propulsive narrative. Gru (Steve Carell again) is threatened by a new super-villain, Maxime Le Mal (Will Ferrell), a French fashion-prat-cum-cockroach, who has hated Gru ever since they were at school together at the Lycée Pas Bon. The head of the Anti-Villain League, Silas Ramsbottom (Steve Coogan), hides away Gru and his family – wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig), the three girls, Margo, Edith and Agnes, and a new baby, Gru Jr – in a safe house in a picture-perfect town called Mayflower.

Unfortunately, a teenager next door, a wannabe villain herself, Poppy Prescott (Joey King), recognises Gru and blackmails him into joining a caper with her. Meanwhile, Ramsbottom gives five of the Minions superpowers, making them formidably destructive Mega-Minions with no greater intelligence than before.

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On it goes. Each gag lasts only a few minutes, suiting a child’s attention span. Some sketches (a hilarious martial arts instructor for the girls) are barely incorporated into the story at all. One that’s still making me laugh is sweet little Agnes’s one-horned goat, Lucky, which she treasures in lieu of a unicorn, displaying its new trick of playing dead.

How has Despicable Me achieved such global fame? In 1979, Stephen Jay Gould published his essay “A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse”, analysing the way Mickey’s appearance had changed over 50 years, becoming more babyish in aspect, his head and eyes larger in proportion to his body, an evolutionary phenomenon known as neoteny. Gould noted such markers of juvenility trigger innate feelings of affection and nurturing in adult humans, however inappropriate they may be, in relation, for example, to animals.

Gould suggested this biological illusion had been discovered and progressed unconsciously by Disney’s animators. It’s unconscious no longer, if it ever was. All animated characters, not just princesses, now have enormous heads on tiny bodies with giant goo-goo eyes as a matter of course. We expect no less, just as neoteny (a term invented in 1885 in a study of the axolotl salamander) has become so sought-after in the form of caricatured dogs such as pugs, with their squashed baby faces and wide eyes, whatever the cost in health. The cute, the kawaii, the mignon rule everywhere.

Despicable Me understands the power of neotenous distortion, but twists it knowingly. Gru has a round, baby’s face, above a large torso and vanishingly spindly legs, but his skull is weirdly flat immediately above his eyebrows, and his nose is an astonishing prong. He’s at once cute and grotesque and we don’t know quite how to take him, an impression abetted by Carell’s peculiar, Slavic voicing. The arrival in DM4 of Gru Jr, an actual baby but already with his dad’s spiky proboscis and bad temper, is quite the tease.

And then there’s the brilliant creation of the ultimate bad babies, the babbling Minions, so simplified and universal, cute and annoying, their features reduced to goggling eyes (just one will do) and a simple mouth, their bodies to rounded cylinders, as if to demonstrate to us just how few and abstract the prompts we respond to can be. They’re genius and their fame deserved.

“Despicable Me 4” is in cinemas now

[See also: Yorgos Lanthimos’ Kinds of Kindness review: grotesque]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change