The opening sequence of 2015’s Minions is riveting. It may not be an impressive movie as a whole: The franchise-starter, 2010’s Despicable Me, is a fun film, but the series has been drawn out by a studio that has no reason to kill its golden goose, so each sequel has been slightly less engaging than its predecessor. But the way Minions starts is memorable, if only because its hyperactive visual gags say so much about how we think about evil in movies.
That introduction establishes some key Minion lore: most significantly, that they serve the supervillain Gru (the antihero protagonist of Despicable Me) as an evolutionary trait. The Minions are a banana-colored hive of immortal, indestructible, inhuman creatures, led by instinct to find the most wicked and powerful being they can and aid them in their evil goals. Objectively, removed from the comedy of this series, that premise sounds frightening. But Minions — and the Despicable Me franchise as a whole — is never truly scary.
Why is that? These movies actively encourage viewers to root for the bad guys, but parents willingly show them to their children. These films haven’t inspired moral panic, with the kinds of online petitions, letter-writing campaigns, and inflammatory tweets that usually greet even the most benign cultural creations. The Minions offer a master class in our cultural boundaries around evil — the creators know exactly which lines they’re not allowed to cross.
The basic premise of the first Despicable Me film — in which a supervillain becomes a doting dad — rests on the comforting idea that there is good in every bad person. Gru (Steve Carell) introduces himself by destroying the hopes of a crying child in that film’s opening, so there’s a definite shift in his character when he comes to care for his adopted daughters. But, although he starts off petty and cantankerous — living in a dark lair full of trophies to his callousness, driving a monstrous, rocket-esque car, and plotting future crimes while relishing the old ones — he never feels truly wicked. In fact, he’s relatable in the way he resents long coffee queues and unmannerly neighbors. He’s carefully constructed to appeal to viewers — the more soulless of us look at the screen and wish that we, too, had a freeze ray to solve all of our problems.
Characters in the franchise that seem truly malevolent — like orphanage director Miss Hattie (Kristen Wiig), or Bank of Evil director Mr. Perkins (Will Arnett) — are also designed to resonate with viewers, in the opposite way. They abuse their positions of authority in a way that feels more familiar than Gru’s comical evil. While it’s unlikely that any audience members will have been trapped in ice by an impatient supervillain while waiting at Starbucks, many of them will have had an unkind teacher or guardian or been denied a bank loan. In contrast, although Gru attacks everyone at his local coffee shop, he still tips the poor underpaid worker at the till.
The writers reserve all his villainy for scenes where they can hold him at a distance. There’s no better example than Gru’s house, a hyperbolically horrific structure sandwiched between generic bungalows on an otherwise completely ordinary suburban street. He commits to evil as an aesthetic more than anything else — as in Megamind, it seems that Despicable Me’s brand of supervillainy prioritizes presentation over doing actual harm to people. Given the film’s everyday setting, his over-the-top misbehavior is funny, not intimidating. The Minions rely on the same absurdity.
Although we’re all probably a little slightly desensitized by now, there’s no escaping that Minions are objectively strange little creatures, with their giant eyes and mouths and their otherwise largely featureless capsule-shaped bodies. And they aren’t just removed from us physically. While the notion that they instinctively seek out evil overlords to serve could be made sinister and terrifying, it also works in the opposite way. It separates them completely from human understandings of morality, in which there is always a presumed freedom of choice. If the Minions are biologically programmed to follow evil, it’s slightly silly to hold them responsible for it, right?
They also don’t have personal evil ambitions. None of them are trying to outdo Gru, or any of their other historical masters. They simply want to serve, even if they aren’t very good at it. The genuine attachment to their masters is quite sweet — so long as you can ignore that “serve” sometimes means “steal the literal moon” — and since they’re not at the top of the hierarchy, we blame them less for the evil undertakings of the actual villains. They lack any actual malice or ill intent.
Just like Gru, they seem most real when their good qualities come into play. They want bedtime kisses like the children he adopts; they make one of his girls, Agnes, a new stuffed unicorn when she loses her old one. It’s clear that they have a genuine capacity for loving relationships, and the only obstacles they actually encounter stem from their own comic stupidity. The sheer idiocy of the Minions is meant to be lovable; some find it grating, but either way, it does lower the fear factor of the whole franchise.
It’s fairly obvious from the beginning that the Minions are hardly the sharpest weapons in any villain’s arsenal. In that opening Minions montage, they jump from one master to another. They don’t put much thought into their selection; they’re usually searching because they accidentally killed their old one. The humorous tone of that sequence means that even the most tenderhearted toddler is unlikely to fear any of the scary animals on screen — the T. rex can hardly be considered a particularly vicious predator if it gets taken down by a little yellow guy who’s just trying to help, right?
The writers have carefully engineered that tone. They show the Minions throughout much of history — however, the script firmly entraps them in an ice cave throughout the entirety of World War II, so no one has to contemplate whether the Minions would have happily served Hitler. It’s not the subtlest of plot points, but it’s hardly surprising that Universal decided against making their beloved mascots Nazis. The alternative would be implying that another villain (presumably of the studio’s own design) was worse than Hitler — which would not only be extremely ethically questionable, but could potentially require some strange artistic choices for a family-friendly film.
Notably, none of the (human) supervillains that the Minions serve seem willing to actually kill anyone. Gru’s great villainous plot is to steal the moon. And since Despicable Me doesn’t delve into the potential consequences of that plan (can’t wait for the gritty live-action remake that explores Gru’s opinions on climate change), it’s vaguely equated to the first actual crime in the film — the theft of the Great Pyramid of Giza. That heist would be culturally devastating and probably upset a lot of invested academics, but it wouldn’t inflict any measurable physical harm. In fact, it actually saves a boy’s life. (Maybe in the horror version of this franchise that exists on the dark timeline, the replacement pyramid wasn’t soft and inflatable.)
It’s true that villain Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), who features in the Minions film, is more actively sadistic than Gru, but again, her actual villainy is limited to theft. Her actual instructions to the Minions are to steal Queen Elizabeth’s crown. When they fail, she sends them to a medieval torture chamber. (Some might argue that that isn’t exceptionally child-friendly, but who didn’t have an unhealthy attachment to a particularly bloody aspect of history as a kid?) Minions even plays torture for laughs, as their flexible, stretchy bodies are simply incompatible with traditional torture methods.
Because Minions are so cheerfully inept, we aren’t afraid of them. By virtue of their sheer durability, we aren’t afraid for them, either. (It also doesn’t hurt that there are masses of them, making it hard to care about the fate of one individual Minion. It sounds heartless, but let’s be real, Bob really isn’t all that different from Steve.) Their presence lowers the stakes of the Despicable Me movies completely, providing low-intensity comic relief in a franchise that could easily slip into dark and dangerous places. Their alien, goggle-eyed character design never really fulfills its creepy potential, but it definitely ensures that the Despicable Me movies are what they set out to be: colorful, mind-numbing, family-friendly fun.