Despicable Me has for a long time now been a thorn in my side as a moviegoer, cinephile, and general film enthusiast. Released in 2010 (within a month of Disney and Pixar’s far superior animated feature Toy Story 3) the Universal Pictures release has since garnered a lot of acclaim and popular attention (some of it critical, but most of it commercial). Inexplicably, and despite debuting to initial reviews and viewer reception that at first appeared tepid at best, the film has since gone on to wide critical acclaim, winning the hearts and minds of the mainstream viewing populace of family friendly fare at the multiplex, and necessitating a sequel in 2013 that performed even better than the original. And now, as of this Friday, July 10th, 2015, the franchise will spawn a spin-off, feature length production, Minions, featuring the evil mastermind Gru’s ubiquitously obnoxious little yellow henchmen.
In the original film developed by newcomer Illumination Entertainment (an American animation studio acquired by parent company Universal Pictures), the Minions played an entirely subsidiary role, interspersed throughout as light comic relief, which suitably allowed Gru’s adopted daughters to deliver on all of the twee that viewers could possibly hope to handle. With Despicable Me 2, however, the Minions very quickly became the central driving force of the entire narrative and its attached independent property, so much so that during the summer of 2013 leading up to the release of the sequel, you couldn’t go anywhere without being assaulted by the pod shaped miscreants on billboards, bus and train station advertisements, and in the corner of whatever television programming you might have been otherwise engaged in paying attention to. And now, with Minions already playing exceptionally well overseas for some two weeks now, its ultimate release domestically is poised to make more money for Universal than seems hypothetically plausible, the film’s central narrative consisting entirely of the Minions strivings towards finding someone to live under subjugation to, which is a strange enough parable to be teaching to such easily molded, young minds, regardless of any supposed merits that the film might otherwise possess. Essentially, Minions is product placement, designed to sell its titular product like hot cakes to children in the form of feature length motion pictures, toys, and other assorted and licensed merchandise, ad nausea.
And this isn’t the first time that an animation studio has so blatantly sacrificed intellectual integrity to the allure of easy marketing and unilateral capitalism. In last year’s Big Hero 6, a similar ploy at marketing a feature film’s characters as iconographic merchandising material, as opposed to thematic centerpieces within a potentially nuanced narrative satire (a la Wreck-It Ralph), was attempted and proved immensely successful. Big Hero 6 was a blockbuster, run-away hit with fans and critics alike, and moviegoers the world over have not ceased to sing the film’s praises, while clutching their very own Baymax plush toys, graphic emblazoned t-shirts, and action figures to their chests. For many, Big Hero 6 was sold predominantly on the inherent charm of its featured, health care providing robot, despite whatever shortcomings the script may have suffered from (depending on your personal reading of the film, of course).
But is there something inherently wrong in promoting a film on the back of its featured characters? It’s certainly not a new development in the history of cinematic narrative and literary drama, with the character study being a tried and true form of artistic expression in prose throughout the ages, which is ironically enough just what Minions is lacking: A central protagonist (or protagonists, as this particular case may be) to follow on a journey of personal and or interpersonal discovery and evolution. In utter contrast, the Minions of Despicable Me are trapped in a state of emotional and intellectual limbo, remaining children in a Neverland of Illumination Entertainment’s imagining (and to Universal Pictures’ profit), their plight less one of existential questioning or a search for socio-cultural belonging, and more one of finding the quickest way into the wallets of the parents taking their children to see the latest child friendly fare in theaters this summer.
And yet there are sure to be certain readers who might turn their noses up at such a self-interested diatribe such as this one. Surely there are adult audience members who might go to see Minions this weekend willingly, and find plenty in the film’s featured product placement aimed primarily at children to enjoy, the film’s advertising not for them, but quaintly amusing nonetheless (perhaps ironically so). Where is the harm in Despicable Me? I might not personally enjoy it, but I can certainly understand the appeal of at least the first film in the series, in its honest portrayal of familial bonding between a would-be patriarch and his reluctant children made undeniably heartwarming, and in an entirely holistic way (albeit melodramatically so). Perhaps, like Big Hero 6, there is something behind the repulsive veneer of capitalistic advertising in this children’s animated feature (a moral sin which even Disney and Pixar are not above placating, particularly in the Toy Story franchise) that I’m simply not responding to on a subjective level, thus making my critique of the franchise’s objective value accordingly shrill and rigorously repugnant.
Universal Pictures has a decided cash cow on their hands this weekend with the domestic release of the third film in the Despicable Me franchise, and no doubt they will ride that mammalian quadruped all the way to the bank. Despite whatever misgivings I might hold against Minions, its success has been steadily built, meticulously planned, and well earned by Illumination Entertainment, despite whatever failings the film might have as a part of the larger cinematic experience. I may have personally liked a certain, other animated film more from the summer of 2010, but the one that is seeing its subsequent installment this summer is not that one, so perhaps it’s best to simply let bygones be bygones, and let the Minions have their day. After all, Toy Story 4 is coming in 2017, and I might not feel quiet so warmly about that feature franchise continuation either (despite loving that other series immensely), so who am I to complain about the continued commercialization of animated characters as commercial properties and unilateral advertising, anyway?
Featured Image: Minions, Universal Pictures
Editor’s Note 07/09/15: The original publication of this story incorrectly attributed the Despicable Me/Minions Property to DreamWorks Animation. The post has been updated to reflect Illumination Entertainment, and parent company Universal Pictures, as the studios behind the films.