Summer Preview: Banana! The Minions expand their empire

Some of the biggest movie stars barely speak a word of English or any other language. Sure, you can occasionally hear them say “Banana!” or possibly “Smoochy smoochy!” but most of what they say is gibberish. The Minions may be the most popular and lucrative foreign-language movie stars in the world, even if “Minionese” isn’t an officially recognized language.

This summer, the bespectacled yellows will return once again to further expand their sizable empire in “Minions: Rise of Gru” (in theaters July 1). The “Despicable Me” franchise (a fourth installment is planned for 2024) and its spin-offs “Minions” already rank as the highest-grossing animated film franchise in history with more than $3.7 billion in ticket sales worldwide. .

That’s a big reason why Universal Pictures delayed “Rise of Gru” for the last two years during the pandemic. The Minions, a horde of mostly incompetent but fiercely loyal henchmen who steal the scene from the second banana, have grown in 12 years into a formidable force and ubiquitous cultural presence.

“There are so many of them, so they have a kind of power that they can overwhelm,” says Chris Renaud, producer of “Rise of Gru” and director of the first two “Despicable Me” movies. “It’s like power wearing you down.”

“There’s a paradox about them,” says Kyle Balda, director of “Rise of Gru,” “Minions” and “Despicable Me 3.” “They want to serve an evil boss of some sort, but there’s really nothing wrong with them. They’re pretty good-natured, except they like to see others fail a bit. They laugh at each other’s misfortune. They are very flawed, but their flaws end up working for them. One of the things we often say is: fail up.”

In fact, missing up has gotten the Minions a long way, especially considering how close they came to never clicking in the first place. When filmmakers and artists at the Paris-based animation studio Illumination were developing “Despicable Me,” the original script had them as “henchmen and technicians” and early mockups depicted them as burly, tough guys, almost like orcish monsters.

Then they were cylindrical robots. But the filmmakers, including Renaud, co-director Pierre Coffin and art director Eric Guillon, kept playing with the concept, trying to channel the spirit of the Jawas in “Star Wars” or the Oompa Loompas in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” “. Since “Despicable Me” was based on Gru, the evil protagonist, the Minions needed to help balance him out. If the Minions loved him, he could love the Minions.

“Pierre was the one who said ‘Maybe they shouldn’t be robots,'” recalls Renaud. “I said, ‘Well, what about the mole people?’ And he says, ‘I don’t know what that is.’ So I sent a couple of ugly sketches to Pierre and Eric, and then Eric made a sketch that is basically what you see today. We said, ‘OK, that looks like a pill with goggles on’. That could work.'”

But what exactly were the Minions? Even its creators weren’t immediately sure. They pondered a wide range of ideas. Were they created in a lab by the device maker in the movie, Dr. Nefario? The Minions were effectively blank slates, and the filmmakers could channel just about any slapstick influence through them, from Charlie Chaplin to James Bond. A major breakthrough, Renaud says, came while they were writing the script for a scene in which the Minions put together Gru’s internet dating profile and “become completely incompetent.”

That’s when the filmmakers of “Despicable Me” began to feel like they had hit on something potentially big: a true cartoon creation with limitless possibilities. Wide-eyed and (mostly) innocent, the Minions were like children.

“When we do design work, they are like baby animals,” says Renaud. “Even if they are misbehaving, you forgive them and laugh about it, like you would your own children.”

Just as key, too, was the voice of Coffin from the Minions. Coffin has voiced (with the help of pitch modulation) nearly every minion in every film, spitting out half words, onomatopoeia, and a grab bag of expressions from a wide range of languages. If Coffin and the team had Indian food for lunch, the Minions would yell “Tikka Masala!” for dinner

Because the Minions started out vaguely defined and their own nature a bit of a mystery, the franchise has offered them the opportunity to continually evolve. In 2015’s “Minions,” his backstory was filled in a bit; a montage followed them through history and a long line of bosses, from a Tyrannosaurus rex to Napoleon, all of whom the Minions inadvertently sabotage. Some Minions, Kevin, Stewart and Bob, have been isolated as a trio of brothers. “The Rise of Gru” continues after they meet young Gru, whom they call “mini-boss” even though he wants to be taken seriously as a villain.

“It’s like a kind of romantic comedy where not everything goes well at first,” says Balda. “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. But in this case, Gru is the girl because it’s the Minions who are really courting him.”

Family theater attendance dropped sharply during the pandemic, during which several prominent children’s films went straight to streaming. But the recent blockbusters of movies like “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” and “The Bad Guys” have suggested that families are eager to return to theaters. There are other family-friendly movies hitting theaters this summer (most notably “Lightyear,” Pixar’s first theatrical release in two years), but the Minions and “Rise of Gru” hope to help lead the way. A trailer for the film ends with the Minions, like kids at the movies, walking into a theater and jumping into their seats.

In the meantime, work continues for the filmmakers to find out a little more about the giant they created and keep coming up with new pranks for the Minions. In “Rise of Gru”, they learn kung fu, a complication considering the size of their legs. Fortunately, it’s not even up to the filmmakers. The Minions are in charge.

Says Balda, “It’s almost as if the Minions tell you what they want to do as you draw them.”

Leave a Comment