Early one Saturday morning in the summer of 2015, I attended a press screening of an animated film with a few other critics and a lot of happy families. Before the film began, the studio played a trailer for “Minions,” Universal’s spinoff based on characters from its popular series “Despicable Me.”
I had never heard an audience so ecstatically enraptured in my life. The auditorium quaked with laughter and applause. Children all around me were bouncing in their seats, shrieking and wailing in utter delight. When the trailer ended, they refused to settle down. As the actual feature started, a boy in the front row seemed to speak for the entire room when he screamed, at the top of his lungs, “I WANT MINIONS!”
That boy soon got his wish. The first “Minions,” starring those pill-shaped yellow humanoids in blue overalls and goggles that kids seem to find irresistible, went on to earn more than $1 billion worldwide. The second, “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” released last week, broke the box office record for Independence Day weekend. Minions merchandise is ubiquitous, and on social media, the Minions lead TikTok trends and star in Boomer-beloved memes. The writer Zack Kotzer has argued, persuasively, that Universal’s lenient attitude toward copyright enforcement helped the Minions reach a point of cultural saturation.
But no less important is their joyous brand of simple, streamlined comedy, which, in its slapstick zest and nonverbal brio, achieves a kind of borderless comic nirvana.
In their first screen appearance, in “Despicable Me” (2010), the Minions were bit players. Steve Carell voiced Gru, the world’s foremost supervillain, who relies on his army of blundering helpers — something like evil Oompa-Loompas — to run his lair. One of that film’s directors, Pierre Coffin, told The Guardian in 2015 that the Minions were a “complete accident” — originally conceived as thuggish and burly, they were reimagined as “subterranean mole men-type creatures” after it was decided that a less threatening design might make Gru seem milder and more sympathetic.
“Despicable Me” is Gru’s story, but it’s the Minions that made the biggest impression, leading to a larger role in “Despicable Me 2” (2013) and their own vehicle in 2015. Central to their appeal is their unique manner of communicating. Voiced by Coffin himself, they speak a peculiar, made-up language, Minionese, that is both indecipherable and strangely coherent. A gibberish tongue that borrows words from English, Spanish, Dutch and other languages, it has a bubbly, mellifluous tone that is used to almost musical effect. When the Minions hijack an airplane in “Rise of Gru,” one makes an announcement to the passengers over the intercom. What he says is nonsense. But it sounds exactly like the bland, soothing patter of a pilot before takeoff; that you get the gist of the message without identifying a single word is the joke.
Of course, because the Minions don’t use a comprehensible language, their humor isn’t based on spoken jokes. This has doubtless helped the franchise find success abroad — with few punch lines in English, little is lost in translation. But the emphasis on sight gags and physical humor makes the Minions films very different from what you’d expect of family-friendly modern animation. Given the abundance of acrobatic antics, pratfalls and slapstick action, what the Minion movies end up resembling most is silent-era comedies.
Coffin has often mentioned the influence of silent comedians on the style and spirit of the Minions, and he has said he drew inspiration from such titans of the form as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, particularly their gift for “telling a story through character that conveys humor, emotion, even plasticity.” You can frequently see traces of famous silent-era gags. In “Rise of Gru,” a scene involving a cross-country bike ride in side profile evokes a classic stunt from Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr.” (1924); another, with someone hanging from a clocktower, is an homage to the most iconic sequence in Lloyd’s “Safety Last!” (1923).
These references may please a few eagle-eyed cinephiles in the audience, but it’s safe to assume that nods to Chaplin will be lost on the kids. Still, inheriting the traditions of silent-era comedy makes “Minions” and “Rise of Gru” clearer and more distilled than your typical animated family films. There’s a purity to the form that feels like an antidote to the jocular, irony-laden humor that dominates elsewhere, from the mildly raunchy punch lines of “Shrek” to the irreverent, winking banter that clogs Marvel movies.
One of the joys of watching the Minions in action is how neatly they manage to avoid these trappings, focusing instead on simpler pleasures, such as an anarchic, madcap yellow creature in blue overalls blowing up or falling down. That’s refreshing and helps explain why these films are such colossal hits.
There’s a great sketch in the Netflix special “John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch” in which the comedian plays a movie executive running a focus group for “Bamboo 2: Bamboozled,” a new animated comedy for kids. He presses the children on whether they appreciated the all-star celebrity cast — “Would you raise your hand if knowing that Mark Ruffalo was doing the voice of the cockatiel enhanced your experience of the movie?” — and whether they understood a joke about “fake news.”
It’s an incisive bit that nails a prevailing strain of soulless children’s entertainment — the kind of expensive, market research-driven kiddie blockbuster that shamelessly scrapes the bottom of the barrel.
“Minions,” and especially the three “Despicable Me” pictures, are hardly immune from these impulses. The character-actor cameos (Steve Coogan, Alan Arkin and Jenny Slate, among many others), the human-oriented subplots, more or less any joke involving Gru: This stuff is familiar and uninteresting, and, when you get down to it, a distraction from the substance of the films.
The Minions are the substance. The Minions aren’t voiced by celebrities. The Minions don’t make timely pop-culture references. The Minions just hit gag after gag: pure physical comedy without borders.
And that’s how the Minions took over the world.