Having charmed moviegoers in two "Despicable Me" adventures, the jabbering, pill-shaped underlings known as minions are ready to take center stage in their own namesake movie. As "Minions" arrives Friday with a massive marketing push from Universal Pictures, it forms a key addition to a relatively new subgenre: the animated spin-off.
Animated properties have long been throwing off new movies in the direction of TV and home-video — hello, "The Lion King 1 1/2." But the idea of bringing them to the big screen, with the budget and expectations to match, is a rather different ball game.
On paper the idea looks strong: Studios need to keep the merchandising and movies going, and there are only so many times you can up a number next to an original title. For fans, meanwhile, the chance to hang in the same filmic universe with a fresh set of protagonists is also appealing.
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In practice, however, matters are rarely that simple. There's the need to find full arcs for characters who were not necessarily designed with that in mind. And even with the historically lower budgets, the spin-off rests on the assumption that enough people indeed still want to spend serious movigegoing time in the same world they’ve already visited so often before. If we've already had our fill of Simba and his lion brethren, do we really think a meerkat-warthog pair can satisfy a need?
A gaze back to some recent animated spinoffs highlights these issues.
In 2014, DreamWorks Animations, having exhausted all the zoological globetrotting it could handle with the "Madagascar" series, came out with "Penguins of Madagascar," in which the flippered friends Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private set off on their own adventure.
It seemed like a good idea — the series was still going strong ("Madagascar 3" was the biggest worldwide hit of the bunch), and everybody loves anthropomorphized penguins. It didn't quite work out as the company hoped. Reviews were solid, but the movie sank domestically with only $83 million, while global box office dropped off to just half the take of "Madagascar 3." Realizing its misstep, DWA seemed to want to go back to the mainline franchise with a new film, but after struggling with the spinoff and other releases, the firm is downsizing, and the next Madagascar movie may not happen.
"Penguins," at least, was a movie of some acclaim and attracted strong reviews. That wasn't quite the case for "Planes" and "Planes: Fire and Rescue." Disney's spinoffs from Pixar’s "Cars” franchise (the first was actually originally supposed to go straight to video) were seen as simply a similar premise with a different mode of transport. After the first one performed decently, the second, well, tanked. Animated audiences have gotten a lot more savvy — or, at least, the theatrical game requires a lot more originality.
"Puss 'n Boots,” meanwhile, took a few scratches as well when it came out in 2011. The story of the titular cat from the "Shrek" series (Why do spinoffs so often seem to involve animals? Maybe it's a salary negotiation thing) received decent reviews for its duel-loving feline, though some noted it suffered from one-joke and repetitiveness challenges. Moviegoers similarly felt like they’d seen it before. The film was the lowest grossing of any sequel in that universe, both at home and worldwide, by a significant margin in a few cases.
So where does that leave “Minions”?
Creatively, the characters weren't necessarily the most movie-ready subject, since they speak gibberish. Turns out that’s not the issue. But there are other issues, some early reviews say, namely that their quests are neither terribly original nor funny. Other critics, such as The Times' Kenneth Turan, say the new direction works.
Commercially, it may not matter. The film is tracking relatively strong: The movie could top $100 million in the weekend, a number that rivals the $143-million five-day opening total of "Despicable Me 2." The movie has also grossed $142 million overseas on its modest — $75-million Illumination Entertainment-ready budget — proving that a Happy Meal snafu aside (even gibberish, apparently, can come in four letters), the world may want to see some minions (especially in an animation-deficient summer).
For all their issues, the spinoff boomlet won’t stop anytime soon.
"Shaun the Sheep" — a spinoff of the TV series that spun off the "Wallace & Gromit" movies — is set for stateside release next month. "Puss in Boots 2: Nine Lives & 40 Thieves" is on the calendar for 2018. "The Lego Movie" is throwing around sequels and spin-offs like a kid that just pried open a new set. And a successful “Minions” will almost certainly spin a second film on the little yellow ones. It takes time to develop new animated ideas, and studios — lacking the luxury of years and new creatures — can be forgiven for looking to their past movies and thinking “we already have all the characters we need.”
When it works, a spin-off offers a studio the best of both worlds — a well-known branded property on the one hand and a chance for a whole new line of sequels on the other.
As Puss, penguins and planes remind, it just has to work.