Thematic Uses of Minions in Despicable Me

Despicable MeI saw both Despicable Me and the sequel at the theater. And I just watched both again recently on DVD. And it amazes me that I’ve never written about them. That’s because they are more or less perfect entertainments. They are funny and sweet. Agnes is adorable and of course she melts the evil genius’ heart. The second film has a weaker plot, but it is hard to notice. The characters are all so engaging that it is just fun to hang out with them. What actually happens doesn’t matter except that it all works out and Agnes is happy in the end. So you can add both these films to the list of films like His Girl Friday that I put on when I need cheering up.

But I want to discuss a more serious element of the film: the minions. They could have been handled so poorly. And, in fact, I think the Oompa-Loompas in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory are handled poorly. (That’s isn’t so true of the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or the 2005 film.) The Oompa-Loompas all seem so grim that they come off more as slaves than employees. The minions, on the other hand, are very explicitly employees. And this actually creates a context for Gru’s evil schemes that allows for the final resolution in the first film and the entire second film to work.

A fair amount of time is spent in the first film establishing that Gru is no more evil than your average small businessman, and that being evil is just his profession and not something that reflects on who he really is. For example, he goes to the Bank of Evil and is turned down for a loan. But most of all, there is his relationship with his minions. Gru is what I would call, the Good Boss. He still considers himself above the minions, pays them poorly, and is demanding. But the minions seem happy. Gru is clearly lenient enough that he allows them to goof around while on the job.

There is every indication that Gru created the minions.[1] Thus, the fact that he treats them as independent is important. They are most clearly not slaves. What’s more, that implies that they are the way Gru wants them to be. They represent his id. And are the minions ever id! We see both the good side of this (their constant delight at life) and the bad side (constant fighting with each other). And the bad side is sweet in its own way—no one gets hurt and it never lasts long.

The minions remind me of the start of the film Swimming to Cambodia. Spalding Gray is talking about the Thai waiters and he says:

They have a philosophy: Sanuk. Sanuk, loosely translated, means fun, pleasure. And they don’t do anything that isn’t Sanuk. And they ask you first, and if it isn’t Sanuk, they won’t touch it with a ten foot pole. Also, another idea that may have to do with a rather radical Thai Buddhism: after they have the Sanuk they don’t have to suffer for it.

That’s the minions right there. They are always having a good time. And I think that’s why I don’t mind all the fart jokes the snickering at things like the last name of Silas Ramsbottom. It’s impossible not to be swept away with their enthusiasm.

So you might be wondering why I’m so focused on the minions—why I’ve over-thought them. It is a form of apologetics. I don’t want to have to worry that there is some kind of festering thematic problem hidden in the film. Of course, there are some problems: the division of people into good and bad; gender and racial stereotypes; fat shaming and so on. What’s more, the minions themselves are an explicit class. But it would be impossible for a work of art to not reflect many of the same problems that exist in society and still be coherent. The problem with most big budget films is that they celebrate problems in our society.

I feel safe with the Despicable Me franchise.

[1] I just learned that there will be prequel, Minions about the minions before they met Gru. So he did not create them. This doesn’t actually make any sense and I doubt it was the original idea. But it doesn’t much matter. Clearly Gru and the minions are kindred kinds.

For the record, the plot from Wikipedia:

Minions are yellow henchmen who have existed since the beginning of time, evolving from yellow single-celled organisms into beings who have only one purpose: to serve history’s most ambitious villains. After their ineptitude destroys all their masters, including a T Rex, Genghis Khan and Dracula, they decide to isolate themselves from the world and start a new life in Antarctica. Sometime in the 1960s, the lack of a master drives them into depression, so Kevin, Stuart and Bob set out to find a new one. They arrive at a villain convention, where they compete for the right to be henchmen for Scarlet Overkill, a stylish and ambitious villain determined to dominate the world and become the first female super-villain.

3 thoughts on “Thematic Uses of Minions in Despicable Me

  1. I liked "MegaMind" better, which is basically the same movie. But then I have an irrational affection for Will Ferrell.

  2. @JMF – I too have an irrational affection for Will Ferrell. In fact, I really like [i]Semi-Pro[/i], which everyone else seems to hate. But come on! [i]MegaMind[/i] is not nearly as good as [i]Despicable Me[/i]. For one thing, it does not have Agnes. Great line for the second movie, "Good night, Agnes. Never get older." And because she’s a cartoon, she never will!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *