If you looked up into the sky over the 101 Freeway last weekend, you might have noticed a massive, yellow, cylindrical aircraft hovering above the traffic. The floating orb was a blimp painted in the image of a minion — the gibberish-speaking henchmen from Universal Pictures' "Despicable Me 2."
Though "Despicable Me 2" has characters voiced by Steve Carell (reformed supervillain Gru), Kristen Wiig (love interest Lucy) and Miranda Cosgrove (Gru's adopted daughter Margo), the animated movie's indisputed stars are Gru's army of minions, whose simple design, high-pitched voices and penchant for mischief have made them a favorite of audiences — and the new movie's marketers.
The minions weren't in the original script for "Despicable Me," which became a surprise hit in summer 2010 based on strong word of mouth. Directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud added them as comedic background characters to help facilitate Gru's plan to steal the moon.
In the new movie, opening Wednesday, which Coffin and Renaud also direct from a screenplay by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, Gru has left villainy behind to raise his three adopted daughters and the minions are the subject of a major subplot when a powerful supercriminal kidnaps them while they're at an ice cream truck.
"Knowing our own love of the characters and people's affinity for them, we wanted to make the minions integral to the story this time," said Renaud, who along with Coffin supplies the voices of some of the creatures.
When they were creating the characters, Coffin and Renaud thought of other memorable sycophants of cinema — the orange-skinned Oompa-Loompas from "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," the brown-robed Jawas from "Star Wars" — and realized that short stature was a major part of their appeal.
The filmmakers ended up designing Gru's minions as subterranean, goggle-wearing mole people in coveralls who like to eat bananas and punch one another in the face. "The minions are like children," said Renaud. "They lose their focus, they're not very smart."
Before the movie was released, the filmmakers at Illumination Entertainment, the L.A.- and Paris-based animation studio behind "Despicable Me," got strong reactions to the minions' design from other animators and from employees at Universal who would be charged with marketing and distributing the film.
When Illumination Chief Executive Chris Meledandri showed early storyboards and animation tests to some Japanese animators he knew, they deemed the minions "kawaii," a Japanese word meaning cuteness on steroids — high praise from countrymen of Pokémon and Hello Kitty.
Upon the first film's release, it became clear that the minions' simple, graphic nature had another useful quality — even children can draw them. A search on Pinterest or Instagram reveals thousands of examples of fan-made minion art, from fingernails to Halloween costumes — even an airbrushed van.
The minions' voices, which largely speak nonsense words peppered with the occasional recognizable term like "potato," translate well across international borders as well.
In designing the first teaser trailer for the new film — which went out last spring — Illumination and Universal focused not on the new story — how Gru is faring now that he's a reformed villain — but on the minions, who sing a 50-second version of the Beach Boys hit "Barbara Ann" with the word "banana" instead.
Apart from the teaser, the blimp and a blitzkrieg of billboards, the minions also now have their own ride, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, at Universal Studios in Orlando. In 2014, they'll get the ultimate star treatment — a movie simply titled "Minions," an origins story.