It hasn’t been a good season at the multiplex for members of the English-only movement. The oversized stars of “Jurassic World” get their points across without any intelligible words at all. Likewise, the title canine of “Max.” Or Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator Genisys.”
But the bald, banana-colored caplets in denim who populate “Minions” take verbal miscommunication to a whole other level. What language do they speak?
“It’s basically gibberish,” said director Pierre Coffin, who co-directed the new “Despicable Me” spinoff with fellow animator Kyle Balda and provides the voices of the Minions. He said they tried to use words from every language “so everyone feels the Minions are part of their culture.” It didn’t quite work.
“I had this whole theory about using the most spoken language in the world, which is obviously Chinese,” Coffin said, “but every time I tried to say something in Chinese, it turned out to be the opposite of what I was trying to say. In the end, I didn’t want to offend anyone, so I dropped it and went directly to Spanish. With gibberish. And Italian.” With the occasional lapse into English, or phrases like “mazel tov.”
The Minion-ian language spoken in “Minions,” which opens Friday, is cute, adorable and occasionally hilarious, but it distinguishes the film in other ways as well.
“There are a lot of old-school-animation values in the film,” said Balda, “where everything you get across is through facial expressions. You could ideally turn the sound down and still know what they’re going through.”
Coffin agreed. “It’s very much like a silent film,” he said. “It’s common in the animation world that the first person you refer to, always, is Chaplin, even in animation school. He was the best, along with Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, at going beyond story and telling a story through a character that conveys humor, emotion, even plasticity.”
In “Despicable Me” and “Despicable Me 2” (both directed by Coffin and Chris Renaud), the Minions worked for Gru (voice of Steve Carell), the supervillain with the heart of goo, which, as viewers learn in “Minions,” was just part of their eternal mission: serving evil. Minions have always acted as servants to whatever malevolence they can find, which, as we learn, has included Dracula, Napoleon and the ancient, slave-owning, pyramid-building Egyptians. In each instance, however, they somehow contribute to the villain’s downfall.
“They kind of fail up, ya know?” Balda said of his Minions. At the beginning of the film, they are in the position of having to find a new master – which leads them to the ruthless Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock), Herb Overkill (Jon Hamm), Queen Elizabeth II (Jennifer Saunders) and a scheme to rip off the crown jewels of England.
Coffin and Balda said they were more than enthused when “Despicable Me” producer Chris Meledandri presented them with screenwriter Brian Lynch’s pitch for “Minions.”
“We said, ‘Yes!’ because we love these guys and it felt that we could find hundreds of thousands of ideas with them,” Coffin said. “But we didn’t foresee all the problems making an hour-and-a-half movie with no language and characters that you’re asking the audience to pay quite a bit of attention to.”
“We had just loved working with these characters, because there’s so much comedy to work with,” Balda said. “But we learned early on that we needed much more than just gags. You needed to know who the characters are, which is where Kevin, Stuart and Bob’s individual personalities began to emerge.”
Kevin became sort of this “big brotherly character,” Balda said; Stuart an “impertinent, lazy teenager,” and Bob is “this innocent kid who helps a lot of the story move because he wanders into situations that are dangerous.”
“Kevin was the hardest one,” he added, “because you’re trying to make him a hero, doing something for his tribe, but the qualities of the Minions are not responsibility. They’re idiocy, and messing up all the time.”
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