Tuesday, July 21, 2015

'Minions' - Sexism, Fart Jokes, Bananas, and My Waking Nightmare


To start off this review, I would like to list for you all of the things about the Minions movie that I actively liked. Not just tolerated or found potentially interesting, but genuinely enjoyed. Here's the list: the soundtrack.

I'm really not kidding. While I still do maintain that the premise had some potential, the film itself was the kind of mind-numbing, soul-deadening corporate cash-in that we've largely come to expect from lowest common denominator children's media. And if you think I'm being overly harsh, well, then, yeah, I probably am, but I really sincerely did not like this movie.

A big part of that probably comes from the simple fact that I am over the age of ten, and therefore watching small yellow pills speaking gibberish and laughing uproariously for an hour and a half reminded me a tad too strongly of some of work-related stress nightmares to be enjoyable. 

After all, this is the Minions movie, and if you've seen the source material (Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2), then you know that the minions only speak in a garbled mush of Spanish, English, and what may as well be Finnish for all I can tell. You can grad a word here or there, but for the most part you're listening to intonation and speech pattern, which is weirdly exhausting.

But that wasn't the real reason I found this movie awful. It wasn't even the basic premise, because, as I said above, I actually found that kind of intriguing. It was the plot, or lack thereof, and the film's absolute adherence to only the most rigid and nauseating gender tropes. The problem is that this movie is made up almost entirely of gags, of moments that the animators and presumable writers found so funny they just had to include them, whether or not they made sense in the context of the film.

There's no emotional core to speak of, no greater story or redemptive arc. There's no structure or clear point to the story. Sure, there's some nominal gestures at an emotional plot, but it never comes to much of anything. And where in the Despicable Me films the humans handled the important feelings stuff which left the minions free to be weird and hilarious in the background, here the minions are meant to carry the entire weight themselves. 

Is it any surprise that they buckle under?

The film is a prequel of sorts, taking place about forty years before the events of Despicable Me. The narrator (a presumably well-compensated Geoffrey Rush) gives us the backstory for how minions came into existence: they evolved from single celled organisms with a single goal in the mind of their entire species. They are to find the biggest bad guy around and serve him.

Note, for the record, that it says "him". That's what the narration says too, and throughout the credits-sequence montage we see that this holds true. From prehistory to the present day, the minions only ever serve men. I guess we can assume that this means that in this universe not a single woman in the hundreds of millions of years minions have been around was sufficiently evil to be followed.

Anyway. The minions love to serve their bad guy, but they are terrible at keeping said bad guy alive. And so they're always on the look for a new boss. After a catastrophic event got them on Napoleon's bad side, the minions found themselves hiding in a cave for a few hundred years, developing their own culture and nation-state, and then dwindling down to almost nothing. By the time of the story, the minions - who are apparently immortal, reproduce asexually, and are possibly invulnerable - are in grave danger. Why? Because they don't have a boss. Without a boss they're just kind of depressed, I guess, and that's the worst fate that could befall anyone! Apparently!

Which is the movie's cue to begin. Our hero in the film is Kevin, a noticeably tall minion who decides to strike out on his own to find them a new boss and save his tribe. His companions, Stuart and Bob, are not chosen for their skills but rather for their willingness to go at all. And so they're off on their epic adventure.

Since the minions speak gibberish, their personalities can only come off as broad stereotypes. Whether or not they would come off any more complex if we did know what they were saying is a mystery I have no desire to touch. But at any rate, they can be described like this: Kevin is the dad-figure who keeps everyone on task, Stuart is the wanna-be lothario who just wants an electric guitar, and Bob is a child. Like a literal child. He has a teddy-bear and everything.

The three of them wander through 1964-ish New York City for a while before finding out about VillainCon, a convention of the world's most evil supervillains down in Orlando, Florida. Reasonably figuring that this is the best place to find a new boss, Kevin and the others hitch a ride to Orlando. The family they hitch a ride with, the Nelsons (headed up by Allison Janney and Michael Keaton), are an apple-pie family of bankrobbers also on their way to the convention, so it all works out great.

At the convention, Kevin and the others have difficulty getting the villains to pay attention to them, but when the headline speaker arrives they get their chance. See, the headliner this year at VillainCon is Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), the world's first female supervillain. She's pretty and sexy and evil and everyone wants to be her henchmen. She holds a ridiculous contest to see who will be her new flunkies, and lo and behold, the minions win it.

After that, Scarlet flies the minions to her evil stronghold in London where she explains the deal. She likes them and will totally hire them, if they can pass the job interview. Said interview is to steal the Queen of England's crown. Why? Because Scarlet has wanted the crown since she was a little girl, and if she gets it she'll be a princess and no one will be able to be mean to her anymore. I'm not editorializing that, for the record. That is literally the plot.

Blah blah blah, they get the crown, hijinks ensue, and somewhere in the reign of chaos, Bob happens to pull the sword from the stone and reveal himself as the true king of England. For some reason. Which pisses off Scarlet until they abdicate and make her queen, but then she still hates them... It's a lot to take in.

Anyway, the climax of the movie involves Kevin, Stuart, and Bob running from a crowd of angry supervillains when they accidentally ruin Scarlet's coronation and save England. That is, as far as I can tell, what happens in this movie.

Look. I don't hate fun. No matter what anyone tells you, I am not morally opposed to things that are enjoyable just because they're silly and nice. I can be chill and fun. Watch me blow these bubbles and play laser tag. I am just like one of you normal "fun-having" humans.

But I find it really hard to enjoy movies like Minions. Because in this case, it feels like the movie gets defended as "fun" because it has nothing else going for it. Like, there's no greater depth here, no emotional resonance, no meaning. It's just fart noises and gibberish and high-pitched laughter. Sorry, but that's not my idea of fun.

I get that this is basically child-crack, since the minions are cute and make rude noises and the story is about explosions and wacky inventions and there are dinosaurs. I completely understand that this is the kind of thing children have a lot of trouble passing over and not getting super hyped about. But you know what? I work with kids who saw the Minions movie over the weekend. Sure, they liked it, but do you think it stuck in their minds? Not at all.

Seriously, I was braced for a few months of nauseating minion jokes and constant references to bananas, but they seemed to only even remember seeing the movie when prompted. You know what they are into? Well the little one is four. He used to be crazy into Cars, but recently he's been obsessed with Wild Kratts, a PBS show about two guys saving endangered species from evil supervillain poachers. And the older one is nine - she's obsessed with Harry Potter.

In both of those cases, they didn't go for the lowest common denominator stuff. They fell in love with franchises that have deeper meaning, whether it be environmentalism or the world of meaning and imagery that is Harry Potter. Minions was barely a blip on the radar. I've gotten bigger reactions out of them by showing them youtube videos of ballet performances.*

So even the target audience here found it hard to really get invested in this film. It's not hard to see why. There's nothing to be invested in. Sure there are jokes and gags and set pieces, but those do not a movie make. They make a sort of extended gag reel, nothing more. There wasn't enough plot or feeling to hold onto, and so the movie just slipped through their fingers.

I mean, for all that I have a few (alarmingly well documented) problems with Frozen, I get why that movie did so well. It had soul. Meaning. Depth. You could really latch onto the story there. There was love and sacrifice and stakes and everything was important. You even cared about the wacky sidekick characters because they added to the weight of the story. Not so here.

And for all of this, I still feel like there was the potential for a good movie locked in here somewhere. Maybe if the minions weren't so one-dimensional. Maybe if Scarlet Overkill weren't a painful stereotype of men's assumptions of what women are like. Maybe if Allison Janney were in more of the film. But the movie never went where it ought to have gone because it was hamstrung both by a nonsensical plot and by the absolute fear of making its lead characters - small yellow pill people - unlikable.

Yup, you heard it here. Dreamworks spent this whole film terrified that because the minions are inherently evil and serve supervillains the audience might get the idea that they're not, you know, nice

So the plot had to be massaged and tweaked until the minions were the good guys, always horrified by what the evil bad guys were plotting. Even though that went utterly counter to everything the movie was telling us about them. They cowered away from violence, but apparently they're invulnerable? They shuddered at Scarlet Overkill's brutality, but they're trying to serve the evilest evil they can find? Aaaaaaargh.

And that's the frustration level I have without even getting into the regressive gender politics of hte film. When it comes to gender representation, this film is so backwards it's basically a Rolling Stones record going in reverse on the turntable. Nearly all of the characters in the film are male and the most important female characters are a supervillain obsessed with being a princess and the actual Queen of England. So that's not great. In fact the only other female characters really worth mentioning are the mother of a family of criminals and her daughter. That's it.

Worse, Scarlet Overkill is possibly the most insulting female character I've seen in years. She's supposedly the very first female supervillain in the history of ever, and all she wants is a crown? Because she has daddy issues and wants people to like her and to be a princess? That's her character's entire motivation? It makes no sense. That's all we know about her. We see her do nothing actually evil, she just seems to really want to be Queen of England. Or Princess of England. 

And yet we're told that Scarlet is not only a supervillain in her own right, but also an amazing one. A wholly feminine one. Which suggests that the writers of this movie think all women want in the world is a fancy crown and a big party where everyone calls them a princess. Ugh.

This is made even worse by the fact that the minions, who should arguably be genderless, are clearly defined as male. Like, the narrator refers to them with male pronouns, they all have traditionally (white) male names, and the only minion who seems to prefer feminine things is called immediately "an idiot."

So that means that this is a movie about a bunch of farting, giggling boys overthrowing a woman with some serious emotional problems and also the 1960s. As far as I can tell. It's just all so awful. I mean that both in terms of my feelings about the gender representation and also about the movie itself. It's awful.

I'm not even going to touch on all the creepy stuff with Stuart and the fire hydrants.

Still, there's a tiny part of me that insists that it didn't have to be this bad. Maybe not good, but I maintain my belief that there could have been a Minions movie that was at least not execrable. Maybe put the Nelson family more in the spotlight, give the characters a stronger emotional connection with the main character, make Scarlet less of a stereotype. Remove some of the set pieces and put in character work. Actually think about the logic of your film. I'm not sure there's a good movie in here, but there's a better one.

Maybe the real reason that Minions offends me so much, though, is that it's pretty much an embodiment of everything I work against as a writer. I mean, it's sexist, it's commercial, it's crass, and it's clearly made for the merchandising value more than any "artistic merit". In other words, this is everything I hate about children's media rolled into one film. I wanted it to be good, I really did, but it's just not. And it kind of makes me feel a little bit dead inside to know that they're probably already eyeing a sequel.

The soundtrack was really good, though.

I'd totally watch a whole movie about the Nelsons, though.
*I am a huge gigantic nerd.

3 comments:

  1. Pretty pointless correction at this stage, but Minions is an Illuminations Entertainment film, not a Dreamworks film.

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  2. Your are such an insane lunatic if your all about equality why are you always stomping on men you're just as good as I am the only thing I can do and you can't is use a penis get over yourself if you don't like "gender stereotypical jokes" don't watching the movie that have them. there's also jokes reflecting bad on men do you want to know the difference men can get over it it's a joke if someone says it jokingly it doesn't mean they believe it and reflecting the words of most feminist bloggers "no, I can't, I can't even just no" get over yourself do something productive prove that sexists aren't right instead of just complaining and boycotting things I'm an equalist and I'm out.

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