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Minions, explained

You've probably heard of Minions, or maybe you've just seen their bright yellow likeness on a T-shirt, meme, or bumper sticker. Perhaps you've already decided whether you love them, hate them, or simply find them baffling, as they've been known to inspire quite a range of emotions in all who encounter them. But no matter what you think about the curious pill-shaped creatures, their fame is about to rise thanks to their starring role in the new movie Minions, now in theaters.

Minions is a spinoff and prequel to Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2, but instead of focusing on Steve Carell's Gru, it puts the spotlight on the Minions alone. Set in the late 1960s, the movie follows three Minions as they search for a new evil boss to rule their species. The quest takes them to a villain convention in Florida and, soon after, all around the world.

Of course, as with all great things in history, the existence of Minions prompts big questions: Where did these strange beings come from? Why do they inspire such polarizing reactions? And is there any deeper meaning to these unusual yellow creatures?

1) What are Minions?

So many Minions, so little time.

So many Minions, so little time.

Universal

Minions are a species of tiny yellow henchmen; they look like unusually dressed Mike and Ike candies. They're earnestly driven by the desire to serve an evil boss, though they often screw up because they're selfish, easily distracted, and generally inept. They vary in height, but it's safe to say they're between 2 and 3 feet tall (though closer to 2). They communicate using a gibberish language that's understandable to them and a few people who have longstanding relationships with them.

They're also resilient. Minions have been turned into evil purple versions of themselves, transformed into giants, crushed, tortured, and buried without being worse for wear (this may be the reason they've survived so long).

Two Minions, one desire.

Two Minions, one desire.

Via Giphy

They even have a few special abilities, like becoming glow sticks when they're snapped and shaken.

Though it's often tough for the layperson to distinguish one Minion from another, they all have unique personalities and names (which their masters quickly learn). The new movie centers on three Minions — Kevin, Stuart, and Bob — who each become more distinct throughout the course of the film (or at least as distinct as gibberish-speaking henchmen can be). Kevin's the leader, Stuart's the musician, and Bob's the kid (he totes around a teddy bear that somehow makes him appear even more adorable — and, in an equally lovable detail, he's heterochromic).

There are a few things we don't know about Minions that the new movie doesn't clarify: We don't know why they wear goggles, though they've done so for thousands of years (early goggles were fashioned from available flora). Relatedly, the evolutionary function of some Minions having one eye while others have two eyes remains unclear. We also don't know what compels them to serve evil people, though Minions implies it's an evolutionary imperative, similar to the parasitism seen in the natural world (but only the cute kind, suitable for a McDonald's toy).

2) Where did Minions come from?

Minions emerge from the sea, ready to bring joy to the world.

Minions emerge from the sea, ready to bring joy to the world.

IMDB

The origin story of the Minions is dependent on two questions: 1) Where did the creatures themselves come from, and 2) where did the commercial phenomenon come from?

First, let's tackle the little guys themselves. Minions sheds some light on their beginnings in an opening credits sequence that depicts them evolving in the ocean, similar to many other organisms, before emerging fully formed as they appear today (this is a departure from Darwin). Though the supervillain Gru has a gun that can transform humans into Minions, it's only been seen in an amusement park ride, so most Minions presumably came from the sea. (If you're looking for more information about Minion reproduction, there's probably fan-fiction somewhere that can help you out, but you'll have to Google it on your own.)

Geologically speaking, Minions depicts its subjects serving an evil dinosaur that appears to be a Tyrannosaurus rex, suggesting they've been around at least since the Late Cretaceous Period. That means they've existed for at least 60 million years, making them one of the oldest surviving complex organisms on the planet. Throughout history, they've served different masters including ancient Egyptians and vampires.

As movie characters, Minions are a little fresher than the Late Cretaceous: They made their big-screen debut in 2010's Despicable Me, the first computer-animated film in the burgeoning franchise. While it's clear the Minions were supposed to play second fiddle to Gru, it's safe to say they stole the show. Thus, when 2013's Despicable Me 2 — whose marketing material featured Minions even more prominently — became a hit, a Minions-centric spinoff film was an obvious next step. Though Minions features Sandra Bullock and Jon Hamm voicing human villains, the Minions are the stars.

3) Who voices the Minions?

Pierre Coffin (left) and Chris Renaud (right) stand next to a Minion.

Pierre Coffin (left) and Chris Renaud stand next to a Minion.

Mark Davis/Getty Images

The lovable weirdos' unique chatter has always been part of their appeal. Minions "speak" in cute, high-pitched (possibly artificially), and emotive tones; they're voiced by Despicable Me and Minions co-directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud. Coffin and Renaud also steered the Minions' character design, and they may have been inspired by the Jawas in Star Wars or the Oompa Loompas in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

We don't know for certain how the Minions' voices are produced, but it's reasonable to assume they are the result of some form of pitch modulation. Some YouTubers who've made a habit of speculating on the Minions' voices have even experimented with their own hacks to achieve a similar effect.

4) What language do Minions speak?

Coffin has said the Minions speak a gibberish language that he spontaneously invents (albeit one that is infused with the occasional real word or phrase borrowed from a real language). In 2013, the Grammar Girl investigated some rumors about Minions linguistics and confirmed this claim.

The Minions' native language is part of their unique appeal. Because the Minions already feel so ubiquitous, it's hard to remember just how audacious it is that one of the largest kids' movies of this summer is, for all intents and purposes, a foreign language film.

The production company behind Minions, Illumination Entertainment, has successfully tackled a brand new challenge. While its competitor Pixar makes movies about toys that speak English, fish that speak English, cars that speak English, monsters that speak English, dogs that speak English, French rats that speak English, volcanoes that speak (or, rather, sing in) English, and feelings that speak English, Illumination has produced a non-subtitled film about a species that does NOT speak English, relying on animation to make it all work.

5) What do the Minions want out of life?

Minions are always ready to serve an evil boss.

Minions are always ready to serve an evil boss.

IMDB

So what drives the Minions? Are they evil?

Minions reveals that the Minions become listless after too much time without a master to serve (since the movie occurs before they meet Gru, it's the catalyst that sends them searching for a new villain). Despite constructing a magical underground ice lair — complete with sports and musical productions — they sank into ennui without a boss to tell them what to do. Over time, their daily routine broke down without an outside force to control their chaos. Seeing Minions bored turns out to be just as funny as seeing them hyper — it's like seeing the aftermath of a particularly long sugar rush.

It's not so much evil that motivates the Minions as it is obedience: Ultimately, they just want to help someone who is evil and, if necessary, they're happy to be a party to that evil. They're so dedicated to the cause that at the outset of Minions, they even attend a villain convention (Villain-Con) in search of a new boss.

But the sense of purpose they develop is external to them — only someone like Gru or Scarlet Overkill (Bullock), the new leader they meet at Villain-Con, can help shape their days and assign meaning to their lives.

6) Why are Minions so popular?

Minions for sale

Minions for sale.

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for City Year Los Angeles

Figuring out why the Minions took hold is as difficult a task as determining the cause of any cultural phenomenon; if we knew how to do it, Hollywood would have a lot more hits on its hands. Still, we can make a few guesses.

Aside from their infectious humor, Minions are uniquely suited to an internet age. They're meme-able, GIF-able, and lovable in bite-size portions. It doesn't take a 90-minute movie to understand their appeal of the Minions. Four-second clips can be enough to help them shine.

One of countless Minions gifs

One of the countless Minions GIFs that populate the internet.

That portability extends to their merchandising opportunities. It's easy to put a Minion on a T-shirt or commemorative cup. It's even easier to sell a plush toy. That's made Minions ubiquitous — which some people don't like.

7) Why do some people hate Minions?

Minions are like cilantro — some people think it's a great flavor, and others think it tastes like soap.

Widespread dislike of Minions is well-documented, everywhere from Facebook pages to BuzzFeed. Brian Feldman, writing at the Awl, makes a compelling argument for hating the Minions because their pop cultural ubiquity makes them meaningless. It's kind of like how every time a Rolling Stones song is used to promote an operating system, it becomes harder to love "Start Me Up"; every time a Minion appears next to a treacly homemade meme about friendship, it gets a little harder to love them:

Minions quotes are big business.

Minions quotes are big business.

MinionQuote

This feeling may be compounded by the fact that there are few critical defenses of the Minions — it's simply not cool to like them. For example, critics are happy to wax rhapsodic about less-famous stop-motion Aardman movies, which never sully their artistry by actually being funny (yes, Aardman fans, it's true — to some people, Aardman tastes like soap), but the same cannot be said for Minions.

What's more, it's difficult to pull out the same bromides for Minions that work for other types of animation — can you compare a Minion to the "madcap poetry of Buster Keaton" or the "zany pop imagery of Chuck Jones" when they're such a unique comic invention (and multimillion-dollar megabrand)?

The Minions also don't have much of an emotional arc or, really, a plot arc in any of their films, including their new starring vehicle. While in Minions the title characters enjoy a bunch of back-and-forth with Scarlet Overkill, set out on a quest to steal the queen's crown, and indulge in a few more globe-hopping adventures, none of it really matters. If you're looking for tight, structured screenwriting, it might bother you that Minions' plot is entirely replaceable.

In short, Minions don't have epiphanies or politics. They just have fun.

8) Why do some people love Minions?

Happy Minions are some of the best Minions.

Happy Minions are some of the best Minions.

Via Giphy

People love the Minions for a lot of reasons, but there's something deep at the core of their appeal. That's why some moviegoers — including me — would've been happy to discard most of the plot points in Despicable Me if it meant spending more time with the Minions (which Minions largely does).

At their best, the Minions are a unique depiction of children. In Pixar's films, kids have been portrayed as sturdily realistic, with even the most cartoonish characters getting an emotional arc (Inside Out's Riley is more complex than the characters in most novels, and even Up's more caricatured Russell has a lot of heart). The appeal of Pixar movies is, in part, the recognition that children's emotional lives are as turbulent — and important — as those of adults.

The Minions go in another direction, abandoning the realism of Pixar in favor of a more expressionistic depiction of childhood. The Minions are the best and worst things about kids, painted in the brightest colors: They're pure id, and they're also pure joy. They're prone to distraction, but they're unceasingly devoted. The can be selfish, but also willing to work together toward a common goal. They're hilarious, infuriating, and wonderful all at once, just like kids.

And that may be the reason kids like them, too. Kids recognize, in themselves, the silliness of the Minions, and they can love them and laugh at them simultaneously. Minions also speaks to kids' unspoken wishes; I don't know many children who wouldn't want to have an underground lair packed with other kids, but they'd still yearn for structure to keep things from getting boring.

The Minions are funny because they tap into a feeling that's profoundly true, and even human. They just so happen to do so by imitating ambulance sirens, kissing fire hydrants, and repeatedly hitting each other over the head.

9) Why do Minions love bananas?

Because bananas are delicious. It's that simple.

Minions is in theaters now.