When the Minions emerged from the oceans onto the land millions of years ago, what they wanted most of all was leadership, and at first they struggled. The Tyrannosaurus Rex may have been the biggest, baddest dinosaur around, but there was only so much mayhem they could spread before the Minions accidentally knocked him over a cliff into a river of lava, leaving them rudderless once again. When humans evolved from apes, they felt they had found someone they could truly look up to, but the little yellow guys had little luck in that department either, tending to get their prospective masters eaten by bears or crushed by pyramids. Come the twentieth century, they had been relegated to living in an ice cave, increasingly melancholy…
The Minions had become the runaway success of the Despicable Me movies, cute and funny and appealing to all ages, assuming you were not among those vocal protestors immune to their babbling-voiced charms and decrying them as the end of civilisation when their spin-off passed the billion dollar profit mark at the world’s box office with comparative ease. This was a prequel to allow us to understand how they got to where they were as the willing underlings to Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) in the others in this series; whether we really needed to know that or if they would have made just as much money with a Despicable Me 3 was obviously a moot point to Universal whose execs were presumably rolling around on cash-covered beds on its release.
As Gru didn’t feature, we caught up with the Minions in 1968 before they had joined him having spent at least a century and a half in that cave, handily avoiding the tricky subject of what they would have done during World War 2 if they were so keen on enabling villains. Three intrepid examples of prime Minionhood set out to find a direction in life that only a megalomaniac can bring, Kevin, Bob and Stuart, which takes them to the United States and New York City where they glean information about an international villainy convention in Florida. Enthused, they hitchhike there, picked up by a criminal family (not the Manson one, it should be pointed out) who are on their way to that destination.
It is there they clapped eyes on Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), the most respected and admired bad girl who puts on quite the show for her fellow miscreants; for the trio, it’s love at first sight and as she is over the top in her cartoonish appeal, the film sidestepped the issue of what was so admirable about being evil in the first place. You wouldn’t find any philosophical questions about the draw of the dark side of existence here, about all the satire you had was the Minions being so easily led that they never stop to consider the consequences of following a figure who only had criminal activity at the forefront of their purpose in life, a mild commentary on the madness of the masses who would willingly go along with anyone who seemed powerful when the exact details of their plans should have been under greater scrutiny.
Never mind all that, for this was really all about the jokes, and that lightly subversive tone was transplanted from the States to the British capital where Scarlet Overkill has her heart set on stealing the Crown Jewels. In perhaps a nod to the similarly-premised The Jokers, Michael Winner’s steely look at Swinging London under a comic guise, this went into overdrive on the sixties nostalgia, presenting a plethora of references which would go over the heads of the little kids but provide a knowing wink to the older members of the audience, though there was nothing tremendously obscure here. With a selection of vintage tunes on the soundtrack (and Donovan’s Mellow Yellow sounded impossibly like it had been written for this film nearly fifty years in advance) the emphasis was on having fun, and also on a bizarre conception of the British monarchy and honours system, though only stick in the muds would be too detained by that. With every frame bursting with brightness and colour, this was shamelessly crowdpleasing, and a lesser work than the Despicable Me films that had gone before, but you can’t imagine the creators losing much sleep over that. Music by Heitor Pereira.