Earlier this week, Andrew Lawton invited me to his radio show to talk about the sorry state of movies today, in the wake of Dustin Hoffman telling an interviewer that his business is “the worst that film has ever been - in the 50 years that I’ve been doing it, it’s the worst.” He’s not wrong, as far as films for adults are concerned, but if you’re under the age of majority, I think you’d probably be sure that we’re in some kind of cinematic golden age.
I know my kids do, and I can’t blame them. When I was a boy, I got to live through the long, slow decline of Disney’s once-brilliant animation studio, from The Jungle Book (1967) to The Aristocats (1970) to Robin Hood (1973,) which would itself look like a golden age compared to what came after (The Rescuers, the Black Cauldron, Oliver & Company.)
Outside Disney, things were a lot worse, as the dismal, downbeat zeitgeist offered up titles like Sounder, The Bad News Bears and the mentally-scarring Watership Down. While there was a lot of talk from adults about “finding your bliss,” neither bliss nor fun nor a scrap of joy seemed high on the list of entertainment being offered to kids, in favour of a watered-down version of adult culture, which was either anxious, hangdog or actively anticipating its next mental breakdown.
By comparision my kids have seen the apogee of Pixar, its revival of Disney after the fading giant purchased control of the budding animation juggernaut, and the marketplace responding to their box office success by creating or funding new animation studios to share a bit of this candy-coloured, computer-generated bounty. Won’t they be shocked when they hit their twenties and – if things continue the way they’re going – encounter cinemas and Netflix menus full of hypertrophied action franchises and comic book films towering over the stunted genres of witless rom-coms, puerile comedies and dispirited dramas.
The Despicable Me pictures were products of this pre-teen movie renaissance, and before the credits rolled on the first film, everyone knew that they’d eventually expand the franchise to Gru’s minions, the little yellow, pill-shaped henchmen who were the source of the picture’s best gags. That film has finally arrived, and it’s both as good – and as disappointing – as I imagined.
Minions is a prequel, following the progress of the Esperanto-speaking henchmen from single-celled organisms to a lost tribe whose search for the perfect evil master to serve takes them to 1968, which is as good a time as any to find evil walking the earth, I suppose.
The plot is more like a notion, made up of skit-like scenes, each of which must have been someone’s cherished story room idea, fought for adamantly and put onscreen with most of that eagerness preserved. My personal favorite involves a hat that emanates hypnotising rays, three Beefeaters and a crazed version of the Cowsills’ 1969 hit “Hair.”
Voicing the villains, Sandra Bullock and Jon Hamm chew great holes in the digital scenery, which adds to the feeling that Minions and its filmmakers are simply trying too hard. The film hurtles past, a fusillade of gags and punch lines, most of which land, though quite a few struggle or fail.
It’s hardly a masterpiece – though it comes close if you compare it to Mars Needs Moms – but at least it’s unabashed in its need to entertain its audience without a moment of ill-considered sentiment or inappropriate drama. My kids thought it was amazing, which surprised me since only the night before they’d seen the far superior Inside Out. Which only proves that kids are lousy movie critics. It’s a good thing for the studios that there are more of them than me.
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