silent running drones

If you’re going to see Despicable Me 2 this weekend, there’s a good chance it’s because either you or your children mostly want to see the Minions. Who cares about Gru and the human children let alone whatever the plot is this time around when those little yellow blobs are running around causing trouble? This is just a hurdle until the spin-off movie that’s centered just on the Minions comes out next year. Why do we love them so much? Movies.com writer Perri Nemiroff gave a few likeminded reasons earlier this week, comparing them to pets and plush toys come to life. She also notes that their gibberish is always “immensely more entertaining than any line of human dialogue.”

The lack of intelligible dialogue is the reason I believe they’re so popular, combined with their slapstick antics. They’re Keystone henchmen, basically, characters that continue the tradition of silent comedy well into the era of sound cinema. In fact, they are cinema, almost purely visual treats (without their gibberish and occasional English word they would still be as funny). They’re reportedly modeled after the Jawas from Star Wars and the Oompa Loompas from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, while Steve Carrell (the voice of Gru) believes the Minions “are as close to a modern day version of the Marx Brothers as I’ve seen.”

One of the Marx Brothers in particular, for me. Harpo was one of the earliest figures in film to maintain the tradition of the dumbshow pantomime once spoken dialogue became standard in the movies. And while he was a major part of a leading foursome, he was often a supporting scene-stealing part of their films, much like the Minions. Movies featuring at least one entirely or mostly dialogue-free character will always get a point from me. Sometimes they’re a main character, like the mutes in La Strada and its sorta remake Sweet and Lowdown and the robots in Wall-E and E.T. in E.T., or they’re minor roles that tend to stand out amidst all the noise. It’s the latter I’d like to celebrate below.

Harpo Marx

With his horns, props, tattoos and expressive face, the brother born Adolph Marx never had trouble getting his points across, even when they were puns, which are typically associated with verbal humor. He literally had tricks up his sleeve to pull attention towards what he was doing in a scene, usually for a bit of interruptive comedy that has nothing to do with the plot (as if the Marx Brothers were ever that concerned with plot). He also could always command an audience’s interests with a seriously played song on the harp.

R2-D2 and Chewbacca

There are more than a few characters in the Star Wars movies who could fit this list. For instance, the Minion-inspiring Jawas, but R2-D2 and Chewbacca are consistent parts to the ensemble who never seem lesser elements due to their being incoherent to the film audience. It’s interesting how they each obviously have a language yet they aren’t subtitled like the majority of other non-English-speaking aliens in the franchise. Part of it is that their dialogue is each only understood by the other half of a duo, and that companion interprets for us while also interpreting for the other characters. And sometimes they’re involved in conversations with that partner in a way that we can get the necessary information from the speaking half (often because they’re redundantly echoing the other’s statement). Then there are the times that comprehensible words are unnecessary. Due to fluctuations in the sounds they do make we can tell when R2-D2 is sad or when Chewbacca is nervous.

Huey, Dewey and Louie (aka Drone 1, Drone 2 and Drone 3)

Five years before Star Wars introduced its beloved droids, Silent Running introduced the drones. They could apparently communicate with one another and understand the humans aboard the Valley Forge, and they could convey simple answers of yes or no by their movement, but they never spoke a lick of English. That makes the film, which was the directorial debut of effects genius Douglas Trumbull, almost as quiet as its title might imply. After one of the three drones is lost, they all gain some extra personality by receiving proper designation from the eventual sole human character, Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), sticking them with the names of Donald Duck’s nephews. We end up caring about the two remaining poker-loving robots, especially when Huey is badly damaged (hurt) in an accident and Dewey is clearly affected by it. Even more than the droids in Star Wars the scene reminds me of when the one Ewok doesn’t understand his buddy is dead in the saddest moment of Return of the Jedi.

Watch the drone accident clip via AnyClips.

Bubo

While the drones in Silent Running were R2-D2′s predecessors, the mechanical owl from the original Clash of the Titans seemed to be a knockoff of the droid. The late effects master Ray Harryhausen claims he created the character before Star Wars came out. Groundbreaking or not (he does also seem to be a precursor to Furby), Bubo (really a clockwork replica of a real owl named Bubo in the film — either way, who names their pet after an awful medical symptom?) was a delight to those of us who loved the film as children. Now he’s sort of annoying, more so in concept, as the 1980s were way too flooded with non-human sidekicks providing comic relief. It was pretty amusing when Bubo showed up in a cameo in the remake only to be winkingly disregarded as not welcome in this version.

Pip

I pretty much hate Enchanted. It’s just an empty redo of Splash. But for some reason I like Pip, the CGI chipmunk, and I typically hate this sort of thing. I guess it’s thanks to his being partial sidekick to James Marsden, who I was also surprised to enjoy as one of the minimal highlights of the movie. He’s also a nice foil for Timothy Spall, who I always love. Maybe it’s also that I love Chip ‘n’ Dale and was reminded of them? Maybe it’s really just my appreciation for the pantomime? Who knows? I can’t really explain my tolerance for this character.

Silent Bob

Wasn’t it great that yet another independent filmmaker put himself prominently in his own movie but not as the lead, and not with a lot of dialogue (save for a bit at the very end)? No matter how much I disfavor some of Kevin Smith‘s movies, I’ll tend to at least enjoy his tubby, trenchcoat-wearing character, even when Bob’s partner, Jay (Jason Mewes), is intolerable. Both halves of the duo have become more and more cartoon characters over the years (and not just literally in an animated series), but in Clerks he was a perfect stone face with just enough gestures to matter.

The Feral Kid

Although it’s revealed at the end of The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2) that it’s him narrating the story as a grown up, in the story itself the feral kid doesn’t speak any English. That’s why we know to refer to him as “feral.” Of course, there’s also his animalistic behavior and his wild skills with a boomerang.

 

 

Snoopy and Woodstock

Everyone loves Snoopy, right? He’s really the only reason I watched Peanuts films as a kid. And as if he weren’t speechless enough, he’s got an even more silent sidekick in Woodstock. While Snoopy quickly went on to be the main star of some of the features and specials, he has also often been a kind of supporting character — or side character doing his own thing. He’s mostly memorable for his dancing and his fantasy aerial battles, but he’s also been able to communicate a lot for an animal with such simply drawn features.

Gromit

Saving the best for last, Gromit the dog is arguably the most expressive silent film character of the past 85 years (and possibly was somewhat inspired by Snoopy). As Wallace’s faithful and brilliant pet and companion, he is always a wonderful and often understandably worrisome screen personality. He also manages to be the greater conveyor of exposition of the duo in spite of his speechlessnes. Animator Nick Park does magic with those little clay eyes, which could probably tell better stories than almost any mix of words. Out of any character on this list, he’s the one I’d most like to have on my charades team or by my side if any nefarious penguins showed up at my door.

 


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