5 out of 10
Steve Carell as Gru/Dru
Kristen Wiig as Lucy Wilde
Trey Parker as Balthazar Bratt
Miranda Cosgrove as Margo
Dana Gaier as Edith
Nev Scharrel as Agnes
Steve Coogan as Silas Ramsbottom/Fritz
Julie Andrews as Marlena Gru
Jenny Slate as Valerie Da Vinci
Pierre Coffin as Mel and other Minions
Directed by Pierre Coffin & Kyle Balda
I have long suspected that deep in their heart of hearts even the executives at Universal were surprised by the success of the Despicable Me franchise. Watch the trailers for the first film and see if you can figure out a) what the plot of the film is and b) how many of the mainstays of the series are pinpointed early on. In comparison to the tightly-packaged, concept-oriented kids films Disney and Pixar have managed in their best moments, it’s difficult to put a pin on exactly what it is Despicable Me is actually about or more importantly what its draw is. Is it the voyeuristic appeal of watching an admitted bad guy doing whatever he wants and getting away with it? Is it the heart tugging of watching a man who never planned on being a father or doing anything positive with his life realizing he likes the idea of doing both? Is it is the easy buffoonery of the endlessly adorable minions? Is it all of those things? Does anyone know?
After the fourth film in the series, I’d say the answer is and probably always has been no. There was just enough heartwarming earnestness and visual oddity to get through the first film. But now they’ve got to keep making them, which means they’ve got to keep working overtime to figure out how far the thinnest concept in the world can be stretched before it snaps back like a Stretch Armstrong figure.
After giving up the super villain game once and for all, Gru (Carell) has found contentment as a married man, father and secret agent of the Anti-Villain League. Or he would if he could just capture his most recent nemesis, child-star turned 80s tinged thief Balthazar Bratt (Parker). A return to villain life starts to become more attractive after he is introduced to Dru (also Carell), the twin brother he never knew he had and who wants nothing more than to be a villain like his brother was. With his Minions and his job abandoning him and his new wife (Wiig) and daughters consumed with their own problems, will the siren song of theft, arson and jaywalking be too much for him to resist?
The clearest evidence that no one making Despicable Me 3 has any idea what to do with it or why they’re bothering is how little any of it goes together. The idea of an unknown twin brother with totally opposite attributes – from his flowing blonde hair and penchant for Don Fanucci style white suits to his sunny disposition – isn’t new but isn’t bad and there are some good jokes to be had from it. And Despicable Me 3 does get some good jokes from it, usually in the form of Dru’s belated reaction to the situations he causes but also as the trigger for the animation team’s best sight gags. The strongest part of the franchise, particularly in the form of the Minions, has been as a platform for pushing bigger and stranger visual puns and jokes. They mostly come during Gru’s competitions with Bratt, who is the best villain the series has come up with yet even if his ’80s shtick gets old very quickly.
But it also only accounts for half of a barely 90-minute film. In between, we also have to spend time with Lucy’s attempts to become a mother after accidentally getting Margo engaged to a poor farm boy, Agnes’ continued attempts to find and capture a real unicorn, or the Minions’ attempts to cope after leaving Gru and accidentally ending up in prison. What does any of this have to do with Gru, his brother or Gru’s temptation to return to villainy? Nothing. It’s just that as the series has gone on it has added more and more characters, almost accidentally, and it has to do something with them but no thought has been given in how to integrate it into the main story. Worse, no care has been given to the subplots themselves, which tend to start and stop randomly and wrap up without conclusion when it’s time to start the finale of the Gru story. It’s less like watching Despicable Me 3 and more like flipping channels through a bunch of unrelated TV shows which happen to feature Despicable Me characters.
Could a good movie be made out of these characters? Maybe, but at this point the answer to that question is irrelevant. They make money and so they must go on the screen so they can make more money and anything beyond that is beside the point.