The Evolution of the Minor Animated Character

Minor characters with big personalities have become very popular in animated films. They give the writers the opportunity to add in humour that does not necessarily need explaining and allow the studios to develop mini-movies to generate extra exposure for the main feature. Despicable Me (2010) is one of the most successful animated films of recent years and that success is partly due to the mischievous Minions. Their outrageous personalities, gobbledegook language and love for dressing up, teamed with generic names such as Dave, Stuart and Phil make them truly hilarious. We take a look at the previous minor characters that have paved the way for the Minion’s success.

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Universal and Illumination Entertainment are by no means the first to use slightly wacky creatures and realise the potential that they have. Back in 1995, one of the greatest animated films ever to grace our screens was released, that film was Toy Story. There were many quirky minor characters in Toy Story but none proved to be as popular or as well-loved as the Aliens. The Little Green Men, as they were often known, lived together in a spaceship grabber game in Pizza Planet. They worshipped The Claw and believed that it was their God who overruled them and decided their fate. The Aliens sometimes came across as lacking intelligence, which made them even more endearing and won over not just the stern Mr Potato Head, who seemed to adopt them in Toy Story 2, but also the audience.

The Little Green Men got their ‘big break’ fronting the advertising campaign for Toy Story 2 (1999). It was very unusual for trailers to be largely made up of minor characters with the two main characters only appearing in the final ten seconds but it seemed to work.

The Aliens were the first minor animated characters to be used in this way and many other studios cottoned-on to this when writing their films. Three years after the release of Toy Story 2, Twentieth Century Fox Animation and Blue Sky Productions tried a similar approach to advertising with their release of Ice Age (2002). They created the lovable Scrat, the unlucky squirrel whose sole quest in life was to find a suitable place to bury his acorn. Scrat was barely involved in the core plot of the film except for playing a game of charades with the main trio. Scrat’s story functioned as a sub-plot to the movie, however he was both the first and the last character to be seen, a strange choice as he had no influence on the main story. Scrat was humorously blamed for various geological catastrophes such as avalanches, volcanic eruptions and the break-up of Pangaea (in Scrat’s Continental Crack-Up short film). This was a step forward from the Aliens as Scrat remained a minor character but gained the ability to have his own separate storyline.

Ice Age was a brand new movie when Scrat starred in the first trailer which was a big risk. The trailer, whilst funny did not say much about the plot of the movie and in some instances it may have put people off from going to see it. Others may have believed the story was about the unfortunate Scrat when in fact he was not a main character and was not crucial to the film. This trailer was similar to Toy Story 2’s but in this instance it was advertising a brand new film with a character the audience was not familiar with.

With the appearance of Scrat, it was clear that film studios had noticed the popularity and usability of minor characters with big personalities and Madagascar (2005) fully embraced this. There were many minor characters in Madagascar such as King Julien and the Chimpanzees but none were popular as the Penguins. A group of four ‘secret agents’, the Penguins were desperate to escape the zoo and performed military like operations in order to do this, sometimes unsuccessfully.

The Penguins signified a big leap forward in the involvement of minor characters. Unlike the Little Green Men or Scrat, the Penguins were given full speaking roles instead of just a few catchphrases or squeaks. The Penguins were also more intelligent in comparison to Scrat and the Aliens whose humour was sometimes due to their lack of understanding. The writers of Madagascar upped the significance of minor characters by increasing their screen time. They also raised the characters importance to the plot from Scrat and the Aliens who really had no impact, to the Penguins who commandeered the ship which caused the main characters to go overboard. The Penguins, like the others, starred in a mini-movie which appeared on the Madagascar DVD but in relation to their increased presence in the movie, they were also given their own Nickelodeon television series called The Penguins of Madagascar. The series also featured other characters from the film including King Julien and Maurice. The Penguins were the first big step in advancing the use of minor characters and showed how they could be used more frequently in the main plot.

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This brings us to Despicable Me and our beloved Minions. The Minions retained some of the traits previously associated with this type of minor character; they were humorous, naughty, they did not speak English too often and they were used to create humour that did not necessarily need explaining in the plot. Out of all the previous minor characters, the Minions were the most human. They had regular names like Kevin, Mark and Bob, they all had jobs, got wages, took part in aerobics classes and gossiped at the water cooler. They were also very childlike in the way that they got over excited about everything and they had excellent comedy timing. The Minions did the things we all would like to do but don’t; clown around at the office, speak back to our boss, dress up and sing karaoke, which could be why they have proved to be so popular. The Minions were the furthest developed in this category and have shown the evolution of the minor character and the ways that they can interact in the film.

The Minions starred in the Despicable Me 2 trailer in a very familiar way. Although they were not main characters, they made up the whole of the first promotional clip, exactly like the Toy Story Aliens. The trailer taught us nothing more than that the Minions were back, with the poor little superstar Minion becoming more irate at being upstaged by his friend tooting away on a party blower next to him.

The Minions worked in a similar way to the other characters. By not being crucial to the story, the writers could play around more with them without having to explain why they were doing certain things. If the writers had a good idea for a scene at an aerobics class they could use the Minions and it would fit in with the film with little questions asked however, if they did that with Gru, they would have to go into the backstory as to why Gru was doing aerobics.

The Minions are going one step further than the others by being promoted to main characters. It has been announced that they will star in their own feature length film next Christmas, which currently has the working title Minions. Minions is to be a prequel to Despicable Me which will tell the story of how the Minions came to be and how they met Gru. This film will allow even more development of the Minions as it is to be assumed that more of their individual personalities will shine through in order to make this a successful film.

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It almost seems that in the beginning it was luck that Pixar discovered the effect that somewhat absent-minded, quiet, yet hilarious minor characters had on the audience. These crazy creatures have gone on to become involved in advertising, merchandise, theme park rides, mini-movies, television shows or in the case of the Minions, their own film. It is not clear where this category of characters could go from here as the Minions may be the epitome but from a few minutes in a movie to a film of their own, these wacky minor characters have certainly come a long way in 18 years.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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25 Comments

  1. Lovely post! – The Minions are what makes Despicable Me.

    • Amy Grant

      Thank you! I agree, Despicable Me has become one of my favourite movies and I don’t think it would be if the Minions weren’t in it.

  2. Minions are the best part, and they get even more screen time in DM2 that they did previously. It’s almost impossible not to laugh at these goofy and lovable characters.

    I was happy to see the Minions taking the foreground of marketing.

    • Amy Grant

      They are, I think the Minions were used even more successfully in DM2 with the parody of the Lunch atop a Skyscraper photograph among other scenes, they really played around more with what they could do with the Minions.

      Same here, I don’t think the marketing wouldn’t have been as effective if Gru or the girls had led it.

  3. Kelsey Clark

    I HATE the minions. Ha ha But I can see their appeal. It is really fascinating how the smallest, more insignificant character often gets the most laughs and has a lot of heart.

  4. Sara Roncero-Menendez

    I never realized how many animated movies had the “cute little sidekicks” trope, and how most of them come in groups. Great piece!

    • Amy Grant

      Thank you! It’s true, I was thinking of just including the groups but I felt Scrat did a lot for this category and would be too important to leave out.

  5. Christopher Dibsdall

    In the world of TV, I’d highlight Henchmen 21 and 24 from The Venture Bros.

  6. Elaine Kenny
    0

    So true – the Minions shorts are hilarious and I’m sure I work with a couple of them!
    Add the history of the comic sidekick in live action films then this is the next step.

    • Amy Grant

      Exactly and being animated it allows them to mess around with them even more! It would be interesting to look at development of the comic sidekick in action films and see the differences, if any.

  7. Brett Siegel

    [embed]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EurAr59_8TA[/embed] This scene killed me! I doubt the target audience will appreciate the serious ’90s nostalgia going on here, but I’m sure it’ll crack them up just the same.

    • Amy Grant

      I loved this scene as well, it was good to keep some humour that the people around in the 90’s could relate to, even if the younger ones didn’t quite understand it.

  8. Corrie Parks

    I think you can go even further back and into live action on this topic. What about the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi? Like the other characters you mentioned, they have a visual appeal, their own, weird culture and pretty much steal the show. Can anyone else think of some examples outside of blockbuster animated features?

    • Amy Grant

      That’s very true, I’m sure if you were to look outside the animation genre there would be plenty more to choose from.

  9. Blair Mitchelson
    0

    Great article Amy. I am going to have to see the despicable me now after reading this lol. Keep up your good work.

    Blair

  10. Louise Egan

    Great article again, I love your work! All of these minor characters provide a great comic relief to their respective films, and surprisingly some are more popular in merchandising it seems than the main character.

  11. Rachel Elfassy Bitoun

    Very good article again. Animation studios spend so much time on minor characters that they become even more important than main characters. They are loveable, funny and full of potential creativity. Creators, go wild!

  12. Cait Woodcock

    I think you’re spot on with the importance of minor characters, especially for comic relief. But when it comes to Madagascar, King Julien takes the cake for me. He’s by far my favourite character in those movies and you can see how his popularity upped his screen time in the second and third movies. Cheers.

    • Amy Grant

      Thank you. Madagascar was such a difficult one I really wanted to talk about King Julien, but the penguins fitted my article better. But I agree with you he is definitely one of my favourite characters and seems to be half way between a main and minor character.

  13. I feel like the minor animated character recently has more influences on the audience. For me, I can’t remember any characters’ names in “Despicable Me” except Minion.

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