I played a clip of the Minions covering the Beach Boys hit “Barbara Ann” and instructed my classroom of 4- and 5-year-olds to sing along. When I was teaching at an ESL center in Huế, Vietnam, in the fall of 2015, the administrators encouraged us to start off lessons with English songs as a way to engage the students. A week before the lesson, my students were waving Minions moon lanterns at our school’s Mid-Autumn Festival celebration. And so I assumed that the Minions — these yellow, squishy enigmas that were ubiquitous in Vietnam — would be a safe bet to gain their attention and trust. I turned on the projector, pulled down the blinds, and took a seat.
Everyone started singing along. Good, I thought. My students were learning the word "banana." Mission accomplished.
“Bababaanana potatoooo, tokati, potato, bachata, bababananna, bababanana…”
Uh-oh. My students instantly started mimicking the Minions’ language. For the rest of class, they screamed “bachata” when I wanted them to recite the alphabet and “potato tokati” after I told them to sit down. In spite of their global popularity, it turns out that the Minions are, in fact, ESL kryptonite.
The Minions — small yellow creatures who dress in blue overalls and goggles — are an entertainment industry powerhouse. After appearing in the 2010 computer-animated comedy Despicable Me as the henchmen of the evil Gru, they were given their own origin-story film Minions in 2015, which eventually grossed $1.59 billion worldwide. In 2016, they officially became the mascot of Universal Studios. Not only are they a Hollywood money machine, but they have also become one of the most omnipresent internet memes. Their likenesses dominate Tumblr, Pinterest, and Facebook newsfeeds alongside mundane, innocuous jokes. Unlike SpongeBob SquarePants, Mickey Mouse, Pixar characters, and comic book superheroes, the Minions don’t have any distinctive personality traits or narrative and they are completely devoid of the heavy-handed lessons of friendship, love, and family that are essential elements for children's cartoons. They are simply subservient to antiheroes and villains. And yet the Minions phenomenon appears to be gaining momentum. With the release of Despicable Me 3 on June 30 and a Minions 2 set to drop in 2020, these androgynous, amorphous yellow blobs are here to stay.
While the Minions conquered global pop culture during the 2010s, in the political sphere, a growing, often xenophobic backlash against globalization has been brewing. In 2015, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, followed by the United States electing a reality TV star populist whose motto is “America First” as president. Concurrently in India, Japan, Austria, France, and the Netherlands, far-right political parties have become increasingly prominent, reflecting a sentiment that globalization has disenfranchised the working and middle classes. Within this heated context, Minions serve as clumsy cultural mediators, unearthing differences and similarities from a playful standpoint. Their inscrutability makes Minions the ideal globalist product — they manage to be likable, relevant, and most importantly, enigmatic wherever they go.
Before the Minions roamed the Earth, there was Hello Kitty. In 2015, the Hello Kitty brand was estimated to be worth over $7 billion. Originating during the 1970s economic boom in Japan, Hello Kitty became popular in Northeast and Southeast Asia, eventually reaching the West as well. Since her creation, Hello Kitty has been the de facto mascot of kawaii, a Japanese subculture that fashion blogger Misha Janette describes as “a delicate cuteness, like a weak, small type of thing” that’s also “an embodiment of all that’s happy and positive.” During the last two decades, kawaii has become one of Japan’s primary cultural exports. It’s no accident — this heightened sense of cuteness inherently has a mass appeal. For children, it’s simply adorable. For adults, this imagery can be approached as either escapist or ironic. With their wondrous, large eyes and goofy, infantile demeanor, the Minions have something in common with this Japanese subculture.
It's important to note however, that the idea of adorable, squeaky-voiced henchmen who mindlessly follow leaders isn't entirely new. In 1999, Pixar's Toy Story 2 featured little green alien toys that worshiped the Rocket Ship crane game's claw at the restaurant Pizza Planet. Throughout the film, the aliens collectively yell "the claw" and refer to it as "their master" every time they see it. Once Mr. Potato Head saves their lives, they start worshiping him and his wife, underscoring their amusingly aimless follower mentality. Although the Toy Story aliens were heavily featured in Disney merchandise, unlike the Minions, they never became a global phenomenon. The toy aliens are a comedic rendering of the science fiction trope of extraterrestrial life. On the other hand, the Minions are an entirely new species.
According to Pierre Coffin, the voice of the Minions and one of the directors of Despicable Me, the Minions were a “complete accident” born out of comedic necessity. The animation team had initially designed the henchman as “a big army of muscular thugs” who did “the dirty work of arch-villain Gru.” After realizing that these “thugs” made Steve Carell’s character Gru “unsympathetic” rather than funny, the team decided to make the Minions adorable, lending the film a charming, irreverent goofiness. Upon Despicable Me’s release, some critics noted that the Minions managed to do something even the most skilled improv actors could only dream of — steal the spotlight from Steve Carell. An Entertainment Weekly article raved that “Steve Carell might be the star, but we’re more interested in those adorable yellow minions.” By 2012, Despicable Me had grossed $540 million worldwide and was turned into a Universal Studios theme park ride. Illumination Entertainment, the franchise’s parent company, greenlit a Minions movie in 2012.
While the Minions were supporting cast members in Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2, Minions was a feature-length film solely devoted to them. A film starring yellow critters who literally speak gibberish obviously came with hurdles, but Coffin embraced the chaos. In the production notes to Minions, he discussed how he considers the prequel to be part of the “legacy of silent films” where stories were told through pranks, gags, and body humor. This comedic philosophy prioritizes simplicity and grounds the film’s outlandish, over-the-top plot. The risk paid off: Minions became the second-highest-grossing animated film of all time, nearly tying with the higher-budget and more traditional Disney musical Frozen.
It was only a matter of time before Hollywood would discover this “delicate cuteness” and co-opt it in an effort to reach the foreign market. In the decade leading up to the Minions’ debut in 2010’s Despicable Me, the international box office had gradually become more lucrative than the North American market. By 2010, overseas movie tickets accounted for $20 billion — two-thirds of total box office revenue. This focus on an international market has had ample effect on movies’ plot and casting. Films like the Fast & Furious series, with locations spread across the globe, are some of Hollywood’s many international cash cows. Michael Bay’s 2014 movie Transformers: Age of Extinction, made with the assistance of the Chinese Communist Party, showcases the ultra-modernity of Hong Kong and Beijing while heavily featuring Chinese products and film stars. The 2015 film The Great Wall, produced by China Film Group and Atlantis Entertainment, overtly weaves this blending of two markets into its plot, which features a medieval European mercenary (played by Matt Damon) who goes to Song dynasty China in search of gunpowder.
These experiments have had mixed results. Though Transformers: Age of Extinction was a commercial success, the Chinese portion of the film seems like an awkward appendix. In an article for Variety magazine, David S. Cohen criticized how Transformers: Age of Extinction positively portrays the Chinese central government while depicting the American government as “ridiculous or diabolical.” Meanwhile, The Great Wall was a commercial failure that faced accusations of whitewashing and racism regarding the casting of Matt Damon as the protagonist. Last year, Vanity Fair even put out a remarkably cynical analysis of the state of the entertainment industry titled “Did You Catch the Way Hollywood Pandered To China This Year?” Although these films are peppered with overt, positive portrayals of foreign governments, they lack the purpose and coherence of propaganda. Instead, they awkwardly visualize the debates and compromises happening between two geopolitical powers, ultimately aggravating rather than alleviating tensions.
Unlike Transformers and The Great Wall, the Despicable Me series and Minions operate within an entirely new reality, combining kawaii aesthetics with American slapstick humor to form an internationally appealing absurdity. The central comic tension of the films derives from one thing: the Minions’ perpetual failure. From the dawn of time, the Minions try to serve their masters only to repeatedly fail as subordinates, leading to unimaginable disasters. Regardless of ideology, this comedic tension between a superior and an inferior is relatable. Historical figures, politics, and ideologies are collapsed into silly pranks and farts. By resolving this conflict between historical eras and cultures, the message of these films becomes apolitical — a silliness that’s calculated to please all and offend few.
As a result, the Minions have successfully conquered global pop culture. In 2015, Universal Pictures broke a record by spending $600 million on marketing for Minions, partnering with companies like Amazon, Tic Tac, Converse, and McDonald's. Minions were the source of inspiration for numerous products, becoming a signifier for their film and perpetuating a sense that they were “freaking everywhere.” Not only did they appear in Happy Meals and on Amazon packages, but Universal Pictures also touted a #MinionsOnTour campaign that paraded the characters all around the globe. In the summer of 2015, Universal Pictures erected a sign celebrating the release of the Minions movie in a Cornish village. (They were later asked to take it down). Across the pond in Los Angeles, the ArcLight Dome theater roof was blanketed with Minions, giving them a prized location on Sunset Boulevard.
They’ve also infiltrated the internet. The Minions’ abstractness makes them ripe for memeing; they can be effortlessly coupled with any joke, feeling, or idiom.
Occasionally, Minions are utilized to express blandly rebellious sentiments about everyday tasks like homework, dealing with coworkers, and household chores. On Tumblr, Slack, and iMessage, Minions have become the ideal reaction GIF — random scenes from their films can describe a myriad of situations. Eventually, in 2015, their ubiquity became a meme in itself, indicating a collective, somewhat defeatist acknowledgement of their popularity. During the throes of the Minions PR blitz, a gigantic inflatable Minion somehow was set loose in Dublin, and subsequently rolled down a highway. A shaky video of the event ends with a car colliding with the large Minion balloon, the dashboard covered in a bright, highly saturated yellow. As a perfectly absurdist metaphor, the clip has been sliced into numerous GIFs conveying our surrender to the yellow blob.
Though the Minions are largely a visual phenomenon, their language is definitely one of their most confusing and enticing qualities. At best, the Minions’ cover of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” is a Dadaist explosion of the original. Within 15 seconds of watching the clip, one stops trying to understand the lyrics and simply laughs at their goofy synchronized dance routine. But this lack of comprehensibility is intentional. Pierre Coffin says that when they conceived of the Minions' bizarre language they were “finding a particular magical rhythm and melody that makes the nonsense make sense.” Often referred to as Minionese or "banana language" by fans and critics, this gibberish combines French, Spanish, English, Indonesian, Japanese, and Italian words with an unapologetic fluidity. Interspersed between the nonsense words are brief moments of coherence — the words “gelato” and “banana” and a few idioms. Coffin insisted on dubbing these English words and phrases into vernacular languages to re-create this sensation of briefly being able to understand the Minions in every country. Sandra Bullock, the voice behind the Minions villain Scarlet Overkill, has praised Minionese for its ability to make audiences “feel what they’re saying” despite being utter gibberish. This act of trying to “feel what they’re saying” is part of the franchise’s specific strategy.
In her essay “The Global Situation,” anthropologist Anna Tsing describes globalization as a futuristic concept — “a crystal ball that promises to tell us of an almost-but-not-quite-there globality.” During a time of rampant nationalism rooted in nostalgia, the Minions draw a sharp contrast, advertising a distinctly globalist future. With the help of kawaii aesthetics, the Minions minimize and infantilize this contemporary anxiety of global change. They are enigmatic, frustrating, and nonsensical, yet undeniably adorable and innocent. As Hollywood studios’ attempts at reaching out to foreign markets continue to come off as awkward and forced, the Minions are relishing in cultural confusion by making it their selling point. They are the ideal globalist product, coming with one simple instruction: have fun. ●
Daniel Spielberger is a writer based in Los Angeles.
An earlier version of this post referred to the county of Cornwall as a town.