It’s been four years since the last Despicable Me was released, but it feels much shorter. Perhaps because the spin-off Minions came out two years ago. Perhaps because of the omnipresent bootleg merchandise you’ll find in malls and on the streets. As such, the absence in that saying about hearts growing fonder is itself absent.
Despicable Me 3 arrives in this lack of clamor. Were it a stunning achievement, a step forward in character development or thematic growth, we’d be singing a different tune. Alas, the film manages the strange feat of feeling both labored and rushed. As the third entry, the novelty is gone, especially without even lip service to trying something new; the plot, such as it is, is thinner than Gru’s legs.
Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig return as Gru and Lucy, joined this time by Steve Carell as Gru’s long-lost twin brother Dru and Trey Parker as Balthazar Bratt, the instalment’s ‘80s-themed villain, complete with shoulder pads, songs, and dance moves. There are also cameos by Julie Andrews and Steve Coogan, and a criminally wasted Jenny Slate, who last year did such great work in Zootopia.
As for the story, basically Gru gets kicked out of the Anti-Villain League for failing to capture Balthazar Bratt just as he discovers that he has a twin (and a father, who’s just passed), but said twin wants to carry on the villain-ing tradition of the family. Meanwhile, the minions mutiny because they’re bored and want to resume being villains and be naughty and stuff.
It’s possible that this third entry just makes it explicitly clear that these movies are squarely targeted at children. That seems the easiest explanation for why this entry’s jokes feel recycled. While Parker gets to have fun with his bad guy, he doesn’t really have too much of a presence; he’s there almost as if it were contractually obligated that there be a villain in each movie. The Anti-Villain League could’ve been explored further but no, they get a total of two scenes (which contain all of Slate’s appearances).
What makes it worse is that there’s fertile ground all over to explore, but the filmmakers overlook it in favor of scenes we’ve already seen in the first two movies. Lucy’s subplot, for example, deals with her continuing adjustment in becoming more of a mother to Gru’s three daughters. This really could’ve used richer, more considered examination and a few more emotional beats but gets hamstrung by clunky cultural jokes and a convenient out.
Most egregious is Gru’s main plot. The man discovers he has a father, who’s just died, and a twin brother! There’s so much pathos to mine and yet no, let’s not bother with the father you never knew, or why he never bothered to reach out to you or why villainy might be in your blood. Dru isn’t even a character: he’s a plot device, and a nuisance when the film needs him to be, and an excuse for hijinks. He doesn’t really give a crap about Gru’s family or even Gru at all; he just wants his brother’s help to become a better, *sigh*, bad guy. Instead of a more thoughtful sequence of scenes where twin brothers try to catch up for lost time, we get a fancy gold-plated racecar wreaking havoc on a small island town? And a requisite montage because what else are we going to do with these Pharrell songs?
Illumination’s animation has improved over the years, though sometimes leans too hardly into ridiculously cartoony, to the realm of Looney Tunes physics-just-doesn’t-apply realism. Again, as a kids’ movie, no one can actually be put in anything close to danger. Their most impressive sequences, though, are when they successfully mimic ‘80s-era material, from sitcom excerpts to toy commercials, with CRT-tube grain and lighting and production values.
Even though it features a lively Pharrell-produced Trey Parker song, Despicable Me 3 is largely a paint-by-numbers affair, a wasted opportunity at continuing to grow the “family” theme that used to be at the core of this series. The lackluster result is little more than your average straight-to-video sequel, except this one got pushed into theaters.
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