Culture

Are We Not Minions?

Scarlett Overkill and a cluster of Minions (Illumination Entertainment)

Children lack irony, which makes them the perfect target audience for today’s least imaginative movies — especially such dreck as the latest animated babysitter, Minions. It’s the second sequel to the 2010 hit Despicable Me, a minor, barely charming cartoon about a Scrooge-like character (voiced by Steve Carell) who enlists hordes of followers and sycophants in his greedy, destructive plans. (Some kind of allegory seemed apparent in this dystopic Wile E. Coyote figure who appeals to bleeding-heart softies.)

The minions themselves delighted moviegoers as a contrast to the main character’s deviousness. Squat yellow creatures with big round eyes — sometimes in workman’s goggles, sometimes cyclops-like — they suggested the de-evolution of populism: the modern masses drawn as dehumanized versions of children. The minions are camp-followers, fellow-travelers, and guileless mischief-makers. And in the new sequel, their goal is to serve “the most despicable master they can find.”

Children may not realize the significance of the minions’ gullibility, but adults should see their resemblance to both the naïvely trusting movie-going public and the morally exhausted, non-thinking, acquiescent electorate. In the tradition of the Pied Piper and his lemmings, this film warns: Minions Are Us.

As the cartoon begins, the old pop chestnut “Happy Together” serves the same cheery purpose on the soundtrack as “Everything Is Awesome” did in last year’s The Lego Movie, only Minions lacks that film’s ironic commentary on our culture’s idiotic social conformity (Devo’s “Jocko Homo” — “are we not men?” — might have worked better). As devised by French animator Pierre Coffin and his American partner, Chris Renaud, Minions takes a surreal-satiric view of political constituencies. The mob and its foibles are introduced in a prelude tracing conformity in some of mankind’s historic moments, starting in the Stone Age and going through ancient Egypt, the Dark Ages, and onward. The minions bounce from one evil, hapless leader to another (Napoleon for some reason got the loudest laughs).

Minions offers a straightforward parody of a polity’s blind obeisance. Its satire peaks when the three leading toadies, Kevin, Bob, and Stuart, travel Pixar-style to a faraway destination — a (political) convocation titled “Villain-Con.” In search of an ultimate master, the minions fall under the sway of Scarlett Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock). Overkill suggests a recognizably cunning populist-tyrant. She prances about in a red dress, not a pantsuit, but she has that unmistakable Hillary Clinton bob. Her campaign slogan (“We all have one thing in common: We all have big dreams and struggle to make them come true”) is typical demagoguery: She promises both riches and jobs.

If our mainstream media seem shamelessly in the bag for Hillary, it took the detached French satire of Minions to caricature her on her own Napoleonic terms as “the world’s first female supervillain.” That’s the brightest idea in this drab-looking, not-very-funny 3D satire. It may seem innocuous to children, but it should scare any adult with an irony detector.

*      *      *

Mad Women runs overlong, but it may be the year’s oddest indie film for its uncanny view of some subcultural unease (or disease).

Jeff Lipsky’s live-action film Mad Women is also a campaign cartoon. Lipsky confronts the political and sexual kinkiness of public figures like Hillary Clinton and those who might vote for her. His protagonist, Harper Smith (Christina Starbuck), runs for mayor of a fictitious New York town and makes wild promises “to secede from the United States of America . . . These are human ideals and I will not turn my back on them!” Harper’s wacky platform hides the extremism of her personal life (a criminal history, a jailbird husband, a wayward daughter, and some private horrors and transgressions).

Like the extended campaign season, Mad Women runs overlong, but it may be the year’s oddest indie film for its uncanny view of some subcultural unease (or disease). “All paradigms begin with crackpots,” Lipsky’s heroine harps. “Revolution isn’t easy.” Lipsky goes for straight-faced satire like Harold Pinter’s and against the dishonest nostalgia of TV’s Mad Men, as well as the “feminist” hypocrisy recognizable in Hillary zealots. After surveying so many indie-film social pretenses in his earlier career as a producer-distributor, Lipsky knows the language — and madness — of bourgeois solipsism, and that, as with the caricatures of Minions, is Mad Women’s lingua franca.

*      *      *

Movie minions blindly follow media hype, interpreting films according to the way they are sold rather than responding to their art, meaning, or lack thereof. Here’s my mid-year list of the best 2015 movies so far:

John Boorman’s semi-autobiographical service comedy, Queen and Country, connected his young adulthood to Britain’s national identity. Alonso Ruizpalacios did the same for contemporary Mexican youth in Güeros. Shifting global citizenship is explored as personal examination in Abdellah Taia’s Salvation Army. Two French teenagers discover male and female social duty in Thomas Cailley’s Love at First Fight, a parallel to André Téchiné’s In the Name of My Daughter, which dramatizes a recent French social tragedy. Julie Taymor displays spiritual consciousness in a visionary interpretation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The political and moral fallacies of the gangster genre are exposed in Francesco Munzi’s profoundly moving Black Souls.

Swedish caricaturist Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Contemplating Existence is a political cartoon of modern Europe’s soul. American expat Eugene Green looks for the West’s spiritual roots in La Sapienza. Desiree Akhavan’s Brooklyn-based sex comedy, Appropriate Behavior, questioned what exactly its title means for Millennials and second-generation immigrants. Robin Campillo’s Eastern Boys did the same, while also exploring modern intra-European cultural and economic mixing. Paolo Virzi’s Human Capital further dramatized the West’s class crises, while Tom McCarthy’s Adam Sandler vehicle, The Cobbler, and Abel Ferrara’s Gérard Depardieu vehicle, Welcome to New York, brought those same issues home. All these films are in touch with political reality; escapism is for minions.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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