NEW YORK (AP) – Some of the biggest movie stars can barely speak English, or any other language for that matter. Sure, you can sometimes hear them say “Bananas!” or maybe “Smoochy smoochy!” but most of what they say is bullshit. Minions are probably the most popular and profitable foreign language film stars in the world – even if “Minionese” is not an officially recognized language.
This summer, the yellow ones wearing glasses will be back again to expand their sizeable empire in Minions: Rise of Gru (in theaters July 1). The Despicable Me franchise (fourth to be released in 2024) and its Minions spinoff already rank as the highest-grossing animated film franchise ever with over $3.7 billion tickets sold worldwide.
That’s a big reason why Rise of Gru was put on hold by Universal Pictures for the past two years during the pandemic. The Minions – a second band of banana scene thieves who are mostly incompetent but fiercely loyal henchmen – have in 12 years become a formidable force and a ubiquitous cultural presence.
“There are so many of them that they have some kind of power they can control,” said producer Rise of Gru and director of the first two Despicable Me films, Chris Renaud. “It’s like power by making you tired.”
“There is a paradox about them,” said Rise of Gru, Minions and Despicable Me 3 director Kyle Balda. “They want to serve the evil boss, but there’s really nothing bad about them. They’re pretty good-natured except they like to see other people fail a bit. They laugh at each other’s misfortune. They were very flawed, but their flaws had finally worked for them. One of the things we say a lot is: They’re failing to the top.”
Failing to ascend has taken the Minions very far, especially considering how close they never clicked enough in the first place. When filmmakers and artists from Paris-based animation studio Illumination were developing Despicable Me, the original script cast them as “stooges and technicians” and early mock-ups drew them as big tough guys, almost Orc monsters.
Then they are cylindrical robots. But filmmakers – including Renaud, co-director Pierre Coffin and art director Eric Guillon – have continued to play with the concept, trying to channel the spirit of Jawas in Star Wars or Oompa Loompa in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Since Despicable Me is based on Gru, the protagonist who commits evil, the Minions need to help balance it. If Minions love him, he can love Minions.
“Pierre was the one who said ‘Maybe they shouldn’t be robots,’” Renaud recalls. “I said, ‘Well, what about the mole person?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know what it is.’ So I sent some crappy sketches to Pierre and Eric, and then Eric made a sketch that’s basically what you see today. We were like, ‘Okay, that looks like a pill with glasses on it. It could work.’”
But what exactly are Minions? Even their creators weren’t immediately convinced. They contemplate various ideas. Were they made in the lab by the film’s gadget maker, Dr Nefario? Minions are effectively a blank slate, and filmmakers can channel almost any slapstick influence through them, from Charlie Chaplin to James Bond. A breakthrough, Renaud said, came when they were working on a scenario where the Minions profiled Gru’s Internet dating and “became incompetent”.
It was then that the makers of Despicable Me began to feel that they had found something with great potential – a true cartoon creation with endless possibilities. Minions, wide-eyed and (mostly) innocent, like children.
“When we do design work, it’s like a baby animal,” Renaud said. “Even if they misbehave, you forgive them and laugh at them, just like you would with your own children.”
Just like the key, is Coffin’s voice from Minions. Coffin has voiced (with the help of tone modulation) nearly every minion in every film, bringing out half-words, onomatopoeia, and a host of expressions from a wide spectrum of language. If Coffin and the team had Indian food for lunch, the Minions would shout “Tikka Masala!” with dinner.
Since Minions began to be loosely defined, and their nature a bit mysterious, the franchise has offered them the opportunity to continue evolving. In Minions 2015, their backgrounds fill up a bit; a montage follows them through history and a long line of bosses, from Tyrannosaurus rex to Napoleon – all unwittingly sabotaged by the Minions. Some of the Minions – Kevin, Stewart and Bob – have been isolated like a trio of brothers. The Rise of Gru picks up after they meet a young Gru, whom they call a “mini-boss” even though he wants to be taken seriously as a villain.
“It’s like a romantic comedy that doesn’t go well at first,” says Balda. “Men meet women, men lose women, men get women back. But in this case, Gru is the girl because the Minions really seduced him.”
Viewings of family films have dropped dramatically during the pandemic, with some of the leading films for children streaming live. But the recent box-office success of films like Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and The Bad Guys has shown that the family wants to return to theaters.
There are other family-friendly films set to hit theaters this summer (notably Lightyear, the first Pixar film to open theatrically in two years), but Minions and Rise of Gru are hoping to help lead the way. A trailer for the film ends with the Minions, like kids in a movie theater, entering the theater and jumping into their seats.
Meanwhile, the filmmakers continue to work to find out more about the giant they’re making, and keep bringing new jokes to the Minions. In Rise of Gru, they learn kung fu, a hassle given the size of their feet. Thankfully, it doesn’t really depend on the filmmaker. Minions in charge.
Balda said, “It’s almost like the Minions are telling you what they want to do when you draw them.”