Thursday, August 6, 2015

Toon-a-rama: Minions (2015)

We’re taking a break from the 1970’s tonight.

Let me start by saying that I enjoyed Minions quite a bit. It was a solid movie with some good laughs and a few memorable moments. It did some clever things and it made me like the Minions even more than I did after the Despicable Me films. Now let me tell you what disappointed me, and let me do it by comparing Minions to Wreck-It-Ralph.

For my money, Wreck-It-Ralph is the best animated film in a very long time, if not ever. It is nearly perfectly written. It is beautifully drawn. And it does all the things the best stories ever do. Indeed, let me explain what makes it such a special film.
Several things make Ralph such an amazing film. What underlies them all, however, is the nearly perfect writing. First of all, the story idea is brilliant. The idea that video characters have these real lives once the arcade shuts down is super creative. The only thing I’ve ever seen with a similar concept is Toy Story, but the characters in Toy Story are much narrower because their lives revolve around being toys, whereas the characters in Ralph are more like real people, complete with neuroses and infighting and different levels of self-awareness. This makes for a much richer world with many more possibilities. They are also capable of a much wider range of emotions, which make them more interesting.

Indeed, Ralph is much more interesting than Woody because Ralph is not the archetype Woody is. Ralph is a flawed character who is unhappy with himself and must figure out what he truly believes. By comparison, Woody just needs to protect the other toys. Because of this, there is never a moment where you feel genuine emotion for Woody, but I guarantee you that you will cry when Ralph decides to sacrifice himself and he repeats the Bad Guy Affirmation with a whole new meaning to let the audience know what has motivated him:
“I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be, than me.”
Minions sadly, doesn’t have great characters. Yes, the three lead minions are funny and you like watching them, but there’s little you get out of them in the way of emotions. (The humans are, frankly, dull.) Why? Because they don’t grow. Ralph began as a villain with a hole in his soul. He tried to fill that hole in all the wrong ways and found himself a failure, seemingly doomed to be the same miserable Ralph forever. But then he finally comes to realize how to fill that hole, but doing so requires him to give up his life to save a little girl. His moment of epiphany is also a moment of tremendous tragedy. That’s why you cry.
The Minions never have that. There is no hole within them. There is no epiphany. And there is nothing to suggest that any losses they suffer matter in the least. So while the characters are fun and funny, they are ultimately emotionally empty.

Just as importantly, the humor in Ralph is just perfect. Every joke seems to fit the situation perfectly. And what helps cause that is that the culture references are done right. Cultural references have become the go-to form of humor, but few do them right. To do them right, you need to do what Ralph does.

In Ralph, the references are much more personal in nature. These references tended to be shared experiences rather than generic cultural references, e.g. recognizing the way characters slid along walls on the PS2 or the secret code on the Coleco or the difference between low rez and high rez worlds. All of those were things that gamers got because they were things we laughed about along the way. By comparison, bad films simply provide cultural references that anyone can get from watching a History Channel or MTV show about the particular period. They are the most obvious iconic moments of an era, so everyone can get the joke, but they means nothing to anyone. The Ralph references, on the other hand, invoke the hours of game play we experienced and the things we laughed about with our friends. It is the difference between a loving trip down memory lane versus a dull read through a history book.
Minions, unfortunately, is full of these generic references. For example, the film takes place in the 1960’s, so you will see a reference to a much referenced Beatles album cover. You will recognize it immediately, as will everyone else, but it will have no personal meaning to you. What’s more, these references aren’t even tied to the story in any meaningful way, they just appear. It’s a lot like a David Letterman joke where he makes some reference, smirks like a jackass, and let’s his gullible audience pretend that he told a joke when all he really did was make a reference... the Emperor’s New Clothes phenomena.

Ralph never does that. Its references fit the action perfectly and they always result in a punch line. They become how the point to the scene gets across, rather than just appearing as an aside.
What’s more, the jokes in Ralph are deeply layered. Consider the line where Ralph angrily denounces Pac-Man as “that cherry chomping dot muncher.” To kids, the visual speaks for itself as Pac-Man eats dots and cherries; indeed, Ralph has previously stolen a cherry from him. But adults also recognize this as a double reference to giving oral sex to a female... something the kids will never get. Notice too how perfect the reference is too that it describes Pac-Man entirely accurately yet uses virtually the exact words used for the oral sex reference. This reference is so perfect that it’s almost as if Pac-Man’s choice of foods was intentionally chosen to make the sexual reference. That is inspired writing!
Putting all of this together, in Ralph, you can laugh at the reference, if you get it, or at the joke if you don’t. And if you get the reference, then you can also enjoy the cleverness of how they worked the reference into the story, how they often twisted it slightly to fit the film, and the cleverness of how they turned the reference into a joke the kids get even if they don’t get the real reference. That’s a lot of humor packed into each joke. Minions had none of that. You either got the reference or you didn’t. There was no joke to go along with it, except that the Minions inserted themselves into the reference. There was no dual meaning either, with maybe only two exceptions (both visual jokes). Ultimately, the difference because of this is that you will laugh for many reasons at everything Ralph pokes fun at, whereas you will just recognize the things Minions references but you will feel no attachment to them.
This is what bothered me. Minions was fun and interesting, though it had the air of an Austin Powers copy, but it was ultimately very shallow and unsatisfying. It was good, but not great with only a couple memorable moments and nothing that raised emotions. Ralph on the other hand, grips you, makes you smile, digs deep into your memory and pulls out strong emotions.

Studying Ralph could have helped Minions a lot.



tryanmax said...

I haven't gotten to Minions yet, but it sounds much different than I was anticipating. I was expecting a slapstick driven cartoon, given that the Minions are largely nonverbal. I may end up waiting for Redbox, now.

AndrewPrice said...

tryamax, I wouldn't quite call it slapstick, though certainly there is some of that... not nearly as much as you might think though. I think what they were going for primarily is "cuteness." Basically, you put a minion in a variety of scenes and you make them as innocent, naive and goofy as you can and then you have something chase them around.

There also seemed to be a strong focus on verbal jokes in the sense of giving them a language that you can actually understand at key points. For example, Jimmy Henrix's electric guitar gets called "mega ukulele." They also whip out the occasional bit of Spanish or Yiddish.

Ultimately though, this is a plot movie... it's just not a groundbreaking or super interesting plot in any way: the Minions are looking for a villain to follow and things go wrong along the way.

Kit said...

So, not great but rather harmless?

ScottDS said...

I might be the last person who hasn't gotten to these movies yet. :-)

Having said that, I read an interesting comment the other day about the Minions. They show up as memes on Facebook except a:) the message has nothing to do with the movie, and b.) the people posting them are usually women in their 30s and 40s. This commenter theorized that the Minions may live on in that fashion, not unlike Tweety Bird. (Seriously, I bet the last time you saw Tweety merchandise, it was worn by a middle-aged woman and not a little girl.)

And I had no idea that Pac-Man line was a cunnilingus reference. I'm behind on my sexual slang, apparently!

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Exactly. Not great... enjoyable... not memorable.

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, I saw it a second time today (for reasons beyond my control) and it was definitely not as enjoyable the second time through. It felt increasingly stale and pro forma. That's not a great sign.

My kids did enjoy it, but I can also report that after a strong opening, the laughing kind of stopped until near the ending.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think the Minions are an excellent vehicle for internet jokes. I think they will remain popular for that for sure. I also think there is enough to the movies that they will remain popular, but it's the kind of issue where they are more likable when you aren't actually watching the film.

In fact, that's a double reference. Both the words "cherry" and "dot" are independent references to that, though neither is a cunnilingus reference (as compared to just a sex reference) without the word "muncher" attached.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thanks for the review, Andrew.
I haven't seen Minions yet, but I have seen Wreck It Ralph, and I concur, it's a great film.
It's one of those rare films that no matter how many times I have seen it, it's still a joy to watch.

If I run across it while channel surfing that's where the surfing stops.
There's not very many films I can say that about.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, Minons is definitely worth seeing, but it's not a film that I think will be watched too much over time.

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