On drinks. On cartons. Even on applesauce. Even if you aren’t a filmgoer, you can deduce from a nation’s consumer packaging alone: As omnipresent pitchmen, even when selling in a nonsense language, the Minions are having a pop-culture moment.
These squeaking, googly-eyed creatures have been popular since the “Despicable Me” franchise launched several years ago, of course. And earlier this month, “Minions” the spinoff movie, as expected, won its first weekend with a huge debut. But now, weeks later, these little yellow guys are proving, literally and figuratively, to have true commercial “legs.”
Amid the arrival of “Ant-Man,” as well as the continued summer might of “Jurassic World” and “Inside Out,” it seems those sneaky Minions are now, officially, the biggest hit of July. The Universal/Illumination spinoff has been the nation’s No. 1 film on 11 separate days this month, unmatched by Marvel or Universal in this frame — and the movie didn’t even open till July was one-third done. And within days from now, “Minions,” with a domestic take of nearly $270-million, will pass Pixar’s “Monsters Inc.” to become one of the top-10 animated films of all time, according to Box Office Mojo.
Plus, thinking more globally, “Minions” has won the past three weekends overseas, passing the three-quarters-of-a-billion mark in total gross — which already puts it just outside the Top 50 films all-time (not adjusted for inflation). In other words, “Minions” should at least approach its 2013 predecessor, “Despicable Me 2,” which sits at No. 25 all-time, just short of a billion-dollar take.
So just what is it about these Minions that makes them so globally irresistible: Is it their shorter stature? Their linguistic quirks and (often-nonsensical) fast patter? And can we find clues and cues in their bright hues?
The short answer is: Yes, to all three.
And the quick takeaway is: If you want to create a virally popular character, you just might want to think about that triptych of traits. And here’s why.
Cartoon history, of course, is rich with characters who fit this bill, often right down to critters actually fitted with a bill, including Tweety Bird and Woodstock — small, canary-yellow creatures we can’t take our eyes off. And when you consider that the first superstar character of the American funny pages, Richard Outcault’s Mickey Dugan, was actually nicknamed the Yellow Kid some 120 years ago (thus birthing the term “yellow journalism,” as the tenement tyke’s custody became shared between Pulitzer and Hearst), you realize that the Minions are chattering in a long, industry-ancestral line of yellow-jacketed charmers.
But just what is the secret sauce in this traditional delicious mix?
Well, one key is to consider the degree to which yellow — unlike a darker, moodier or angrier tint — often reflects innocence. Exhibit A: SpongeBob SquarePants.
“SpongeBob is a complete innocent — not an idiot,” his creator, Stephen Hillenburg, once told me. “SpongeBob never fully realizes how stupid [friend] Patrick is, and they’re whipping themselves up into situations — that’s always where the humor comes from.
“The rule is: Follow the innocence and avoid topical [humor].”
That character trait is so readily recognizable, it can also contribute to why SpongeBob travels well to other cultures, and is so massively popular overseas.
“It’s because of its simplicity,” Hillenburg told The Post’s Comic Riffs. “Everybody recognizes the childlike character. … It’s universally understood — it’s physical comedy and you can understand.”
All that yellow purity tucked into a small package can also confer an irresistible cuteness, whether it’s the “kawaii” quality of Pikachu, or Woodstock in Charles “Sparky” Schulz’s “Peanuts.”
“Vince Guaraldi of course wrote the song ‘Little Birdie’ — he sang it on our show … ,” Emmy-winning “Peanuts” producer Lee Mendelson tells me of the groovin’ tune about a wee, worrisome bird who seems vulnerable because he can’t quite fly just right. “Sparky thought the lyrics captured the spirit of Woodstock.”
Then there was Woodstock’s “chicken-scratch” dialogue, which the late-great animator Bill Melendez “voiced,” as he did Snoopy. (Melendez’s recorded tracks will be used again for this November’s feature film “The Peanuts Movie.”)
Schulz “told me once that he wondered [whether] all the noises that birds make was actual ‘language,’ so maybe that’s where the thought came from for the birds,” Mendelson tells Comic Riffs.
More recently, another golden-hued cartoon animal has found huge success, from screen and then page: Jake the Dog, from Pendleton Ward’s “Adventure Time.”
“Jake the Dog has a pretty brilliant design,” Steve Conley, a Washington area-based cartoonist who has drawn the Boom! Studios “Adventure Time” comic book, tells me. “His face is just a few simple shapes, and he’s a bright golden-yellow.
“Those features help give artists and animators more freedom when drawing him,” continues Conley (“Bloop”). “We can stretch and twist him a million different ways, and that weird assemblage of facial features and brilliant color always lets the viewer know it’s Jake.”
From friendly sized to funny-sounding, many of these character attributes, naturally, now play into the pliable popularity of the Minions.
“They work on a number of levels, I think: Gleefully mischievous but charmingly innocent, very funny to look at … and that strange, vaguely French patois in which they babble just adds to the appeal,” says Steve McGarry, who beginning with “Despicable Me 2” was brought aboard by Illumination to do marketing-campaign and character “toolkit” art, and who also just did a four-month stint working as a story artist on “Minions Paradise” for EA Games.
McGarry, who earlier this month did live art demos on his Cintiq tablet at Comic-Con, says he’s given a fairly free hand to render his Minions.
“Different studios have their own guidelines for their story artists: Some insist that the characters represented on their storyboards are rendered to a very high degree of accuracy, others are a bit looser,” McGarry tells me. “With Illumination, they are more focused on the gag and storyline that the story artist creates, and are not too concerned with a faithful depiction at that stage of the proceedings.”
(“My boards,” he noted, “can vary from 20 or 30 frame animatics that are essentially rudimentary animations to a quick thumbnail scribble of a gag idea.”)
Yet still, where’s the magic come from? How do you render figures that one “Minions” voice actor, “Mad Men’s” Jon Hamm, has likened to visually addictive drug capsules, and achieve — as the franchise’s villains have sought — worldwide domination?
In other words, what is a “Minions” artist making sure to convey as he sketches another small, yellow, funny-voiced chatterer that the world can’t resist?
“It’s really,” McGarry says slyly, “a big, yellow Twinkie in overalls and goggles!”