Henchmen get a promotion to main men in “Minions,” as the diminutive yellow quasi-aliens of the “Despicable Me” series grab the spotlight for a 3-D spinoff feature. It’s a bit of franchising that was easy enough to look forward to, given how consistently amusing the little guys have been with their silly bumbling and their vaguely French, vaguely Spanglish stream of fast-forward gibberish.
Sandra Bullock’s casting as the Minions’ new worship figure sounded worth a look too. But maybe they need that interplay with their old supervillain boss Gru more than their creators realized. While kids will probably get enough of an eye-candy rush to get through the movie without complaint, this is one of the more disappointing animated event releases in recent memory.
Not that it starts out that way. Really thinking big with their prequel concept, the animators open with a sweeping, hysterical look at the Minions’ allegiances throughout the ages, as they latch onto despicable masters ranging from a T. Rex to Napoleon. This extended sequence finally lands them in wintry exile — in Russia, if we’re following our Improbable History correctly. But eventually the novelty of building snow forts wears off, and they begin starving for dastardly new marching orders.
Finally, a reluctantly enterprising Minion named Kevin suggests venturing out into the world to find a new overlord, and calls for volunteers to join him. He winds up recruiting clueless, banana-craving Stuart and skittish, runtier-than-average Bob, and off they toddle. (They’re all voiced, as always, by series co-director Pierre Coffin, who does nice work giving them distinguishable identities.)
The trio land in 1960s New York, and the movie maintains its momentum for a stretch with fun bits about their Corduroy-esque night in a department store and the retro TV shows they watch while bunking down. But once they head for a supervillain convention in Orlando and we’re done with some satire about what the area was like pre-Disney, the inspiration vanishes. The Minions might be wowed by the convention’s big star — leggy, fabulously bouffanted Scarlet Overkill (Bullock) — but the script doesn’t give her any material to make us feel the same. Impressive as it is that the filmmakers get so much comedic mileage out of their characters’ half-intelligible prattling, the conventional dialogue is bafflingly flat.
Scarlet whisks her new helpers off to an elaborately rendered mod London, where she and her hipster hubby (Jon Hamm) dispatch them to steal the queen’s crown — or to skitter through a couple of acts’ worth of noisy, tediously generic action, depending on your view. You’ll have to appreciate what fleeting cleverness you can here: Jennifer Saunders’s amusingly loosey-goosey impression of dethroned Queen Elizabeth, Beefeaters breaking into an unlikely song-and-dance number, a soundtrack swingin’ with hits from the British Invasion. They save “Mellow Yellow” for the end credits, but something by the Moody Blues might have better reflected how ticket buyers will feel as they exit.
Watch the trailer: