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Meet the Minions, characters with a language -- and, now, movie -- all their own

Stuart, Kevin and Bob dig their new gadgets

Stuart, Kevin and Bob dig their new gadgets in "Minions." Credit: Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment

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 codirected 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."

Your characters may be animated, he added, but "they still needs to translate all that stuff without words. It's all physical comedy in animation, and those guys were able to convey most emotions you want an audience to feel. The language is really a cherry on top of it."

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, y'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."

They still thwart evil, Balda said, but only "through incompetence."

"Minions 2"? Balda didn't rule it out, but making an animated film like this takes about three years. Both Balda, who concentrates on the storyboarding and design of the films, and Coffin, who directs the actors and does the voices, are involved in "Despicable Me 3," scheduled for 2017.

"Everybody has a say that goes beyond their job title," Coffin said of the "Minions," crew, which included Meledandri, Lynch and editor Claire Dodgson. And while the stars of their new film aren't exactly divas, they do present difficulties.

"They're just little balls," Coffin laughed. "And to give them shape in a character-driven story, you have to have something happening that's really, really interesting."

SIDEKICKING INTO THE FOREFRONT

Minions live to serve, so being the stars of their own feature film might seem contrary to their raison d'etre. But the little yellow guys are not the first subordinate creatures in cartoon land to be thrust into the spotlight -- or given a show of their own. "The Simpsons" got their start on "The Tracey Ullman Show," and "Count Duckula" was the offspring of "Danger Mouse." As Stanislavsky said, sort of, "There are no small parts, just small cartoon characters."

THE BULLWINKLE SHOW (1961-64) -- The Eve Harrington of animation and a proud graduate of Wottsamatta U., Bullwinkle J. Moose began his career as the learning-impaired sidekick to Rocket J. Squirrel on the 1959 cartoon show "Rocky and His Friends." When the show made the switch from ABC to NBC, however, it became "The Bullwinkle Show." Mr. Squirrel was unavailable for comment.

JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS (1970-72) -- They were originally a sidebar to the "Archie" universe, which also spawned the whole "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" phenomenon. "The Archie Show" had been a huge Saturday morning success for CBS during the 1968-69 season, and the alleged pop group The Archies had a No. 1 Billboard hit with "Sugar, Sugar." So Josie et al. were drafted into their own music-driven animated series.

POSTCARDS FROM BUSTER (2004-08, 2012) -- This spinoff of PBS' "Arthur" blended animated and live action as it followed Arthur's pal Buster across the United States to meet other children and learn about their lives. When a 2005 episode titled "Sugartime!" featured the children of gay parents, it led to one of the more shameful incidents in PBS history, with Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings excoriating the show and threatening funding cuts, and then-PBS president/CEO Pat Mitchell throwing "Buster" under the bus.

THE CLEVELAND SHOW (2009-13) -- Peter Griffin's pal on "Family Guy" -- the one so often seen on the collapsing roof, in the bathtub -- got his own program on Fox in 2009. Created by Seth MacFarlane, it focuses on Cleveland's transition from Rhode Island to Stoolbend, Virginia. The original title, apparently, was "Black Family Guy."

FINDING DORY (2016) -- Scheduled for release next summer, this Disney-Pixar production will center on Dory the hippo tang (that's what she is) who was the daffy sidekick to the offspring-hunting Marlin (Albert Brooks) in "Finding Nemo." Ellen DeGeneres will again voice Dory; co-stars will include Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Idris Elba and Eugene Levy.

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