I’m gonna tell you about a movie and I want you to guess it. I’m not going to tell you anything about the plot though. I’m just going to tell you about the sidekicks.
There’s a gaggle of wacky creatures that speak only in gestures and gibberish. Some of them are big, some are them are small. Any single one could be pulled right out of a Looney Tunes short or a Charlie Chaplin film. Some of them have names, but most of them don’t. Nobody remembers what they actually did in the movie, but everybody loves the memes.
What movie am I describing?
It’s the Lorax (2014) of course, featuring the Barbaloots!
It’s also the Last Jedi (2017), featuring the Porgs.
It’s also Hop (2011), Trolls (2016), and The Mandalorian too.
Oh, it’s also the Despicable Me / Minions super-franchise.
Over the last decade, animated sidekicks have gone through a transformation. Wise-cracking sidekicks voiced by standup comedians have been replaced by sidekicks known more for their actions than their words. This isn’t an accident. It’s a deliberate move that shows how much the international markets, merchandising, and memes have influenced how movies are being made.
Before he started Despicable Me studio Illumination Entertainment, Christopher Meledandri led Blue Sky Animation, a small animation studio that was part of 20th Century Fox. Blue Sky Animation’s most endearing franchise was Ice Age, whose first four sequels comprised the studio’s four most successful films. The original Ice Age was a critical success featuring a cast of prehistoric animals learning to become a community, all voiced by well-known celebrities. I dare you to name a single main character in Ice Age or the celebrity that voiced them. Nobody can. But everyone remembers the rabid, grunting squirrel creature and his endless quest to catch his acorn.
Scrat - a portmanteau of squirrel and rat - was so beloved by audiences that his presence grew throughout the franchise. He didn’t speak a word, meaning that the film’s director was able to voice him. By the time Blue Sky Animation was dissolved by Disney, Scrat had been a part of all 4 of the sequels and 7 out of 8 short films, and was Blue Sky’s long-time mascot.
This kind of vaudevillian character was a massive departure from typical sidekicks of the time. For years, animated films had become more and more reliant on celebrity casts to drive theater attendance. Ice Age was no different, recruiting beloved 2000s star Ray Romano to voice the lead character. The 1990s Disney Animation formula was to have a famous comedian recite PG-rated standup as the looney sidekick. It was the same pattern that led to Genie in Aladdin and Mushu in Mulan. It was so established that DreamWorks Animation satirized (or maybe perfected?) the pattern with Eddie Murphy’s Donkey in Shrek.
The Ice Age franchise had a profound shift in their audience over the series. The first Ice Age movie had 46% percent of its box office gross coming from domestic audiences and 54% coming from international audiences. By the time Ice Age 4 rolled around, a whopping 81.6% came from international audiences.
Scrat represented a sidekick that was far better suited for the global theater. His lines didn’t have to be dubbed over in multiple languages or tweaked to fit different cultures. His jokes landed across the world since they relied on universal physical comedy, and there was no need to shell out for expensive voice actors. International audiences connected with the grunting squirrel rat, and his presence in the movies only grew. He became more of a lead character, earning himself a love interest and causing an almost-apocalypse.
Scrat’s success didn’t end when his franchise did. This model of the looney low-brow sidekick was one of the ideas that Chris Meledandri brought to his next studio, Illumination Entertainment, with the goal of producing lower cost animated films.
In 2010, Illumination Entertainment released its first film: Despicable Me. Critics loved Steve Carrell as Gru and his surprisingly emotional journey from supervillain to father. The movie raked in $543 million on a $69 million budget, proving that Illumination was able to make more profitable animated films than their counterparts.
Despicable Me took the Scrat model and ran wild with it. The Minions were cute and wild like Scrat, but had far less agency than he did. A single scene could have multiple jokes since multiple minions could appear. There were no emotional arcs, love interests, inciting actions, or motivations. The Minions were just vehicles for jokes. If the joke needed multiple Minions, there were multiple Minions. If you needed a long setup for a punchline, just name one of the Minions Bob.
The Minions were the clear viral stars of the movie, triggering an unending stream of memes. When Despicable Me 2 came out, it made 62% of it’s box office internationally, up from the first movie’s 53.7%. The theory had been planted: The Minions, like Scrat, were an international draw.
The Scrat formula perfectly culminated in the standalone Minions movie. The movie’s main characters were three named Minions: Kevin, Stuart, and Bob. They still combined the antics of Scrat with the loose structure of the Minions, blown-up to protagonist proportions. They were capable of scenes with emotional nuance, but this nuance was conveyed only through Minion grunts, sad music, and a look. Kevin, Stuart, and Bob didn’t need deep souls or famous voices. They just had to be Minions.
The Minions movie proved that the Scrat model was the formula for attracting international audiences, particularly in the world’s second largest film market, China. Minions had the highest opening weekend for any animated movie in China, made wilder by the fact that it was 50% higher than the next highest. It made 71% of its box office internationally, well above the first two movies. Who took over the record next in China? The next Minions movie, Despicable Me 3, of course. The Minions movie also had Universal’s largest advertising push of all time, leading to $2.5B of Minion merchandise sales (which, honestly, is too much).
This formula didn’t just work for movies. Need a theme park ride that you can take across your international chain? The Minions are perfect. Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem was released in Orlando, copied over in Hollywood, and now exists (or is planned to exist) in every Universal theme park worldwide.
While the Scrat model has clearly worked for the Minions, the question remains: does it work elsewhere?
To find out, we turn to one of the biggest film franchises of all time: Star Wars.
The same year Despicable Me 3 came out, The Last Jedi was released. While the movie was (unfairly) dismissed by some fans, the Porgs were universally loved. They were mute, they were wacky, they went on hijinks. They were Minions in every way. Porg merchandise is still sold to this day.
2 years later, Baby Yoda Variety Hour - I mean, the Mandalorian - was released. Baby Yoda fit the Scrat model exactly. His memes blasted around social media, making him possibly the most memed character that year. The show created international records for Disney+, and the demand for Baby Yoda merchandise even surprised master merchandiser Disney. Baby Yoda (known as Grogu to those that follow the lore) has since been rolled out to theme parks and become an even bigger merchandise sensation, earning his place as the mascot of post-Skywalker Star Wars.
And voila: another franchise had successfully followed the Scrat playbook to become an international sensation.
At this point, the Minions playbook has proven itself throughout cinema. Where will it appear next? My money’s on the new Mario movie. When Illumation’s Mario movie comes out, it’s clear that at least one set of characters (Koopas? Toads? Goombas?) will follow the Minion playbook. The only question is, will audiences continue to respond to it?