Oh, Despicable Me. It’s happened. The law of diminishing returns has finally caught up with you. You were once a clever, oddball, little fun-packed feature, but the demands of studio executives sapped your spark like so many before you.
Despicable Me 3 is the fourth installment, including the prequel Minions, to Illumination Entertainment’s flagship franchise. When Chris Meledandri of Ice Age fame assembled some holdovers from Fox’s Blue Sky Studios to forge an animation company for Universal, he had no idea the level of success they were about unleash.
The studio’s debut, Despicable Me, was a surprise hit with audiences and critics worldwide. The idiosyncratic, sweet story of Steve Carrell’s eccentric supervillain finding his soft spot featured adept voice work, and brilliant character design when it came to those adorable pill-shaped minions with a penchant for mischief.
A sequel inevitably followed, and while Despicable Me 2 tore up the box office, it suffered by having its premise nullified with Gru reformed from evil. However, it featured a delightful new character from Kristin Wiig, and still delivered on heartfelt sentiment. Later, the manic spin-off Minions hilariously divulged the backstory of those clumsy little goofballs, and became only the third animated film to break a billion dollars.
From a business perspective, the increasing levels of unprecedented success make another sequel out of the question. From a critical lens, however, the concept has been stretched closer to its limits with each expansion. As the newest sequel proves, Despicable Me is at the stage where Illumination has been exhausted of any invention they had left for Gru and his unconventional family.
In Despicable Me 3, we check in with our favorite Russian-accented ex-villain Gru (Steve Carell) loving married life with secret agent Lucy (Kristen Wiig), fighting crime together for the Anti-Villain League. Their honeymoon phase hits the breaks, however, when the newly appointed AVL director terminates them both for failing to thwart the plans of Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), a supervillain pursuing an enormous diamond.
Balthazar Bratt is a former child star of a short-lived 80s show about a juvenile villain, sort of a baddie Doogie Howser. Evoking many a reckless ex-Disney star, Bratt remains stuck in the past, trying to recreate the series in real life. Having never left the 80s, he accompanies an overuse of occasionally amusing references to the decade. He lives in a Rubik’s cube house, uses bubble gum as a weapon, plays Simon Says, and has Michael Jackson’s “Bad” as a theme song.
With a quickly evaporating set of ideas for Gru, this time the writers pit him face-to-face with his long lost twin brother, Dru (also Steve Carell). At the start, the concept shows promise with Gru feeling self-conscious compared to Dru’s wealth and flowing hair. This approach is quickly dropped when Gru learns their father was a villain who admired him, and Dru has spent his life trying to measure up to Gru.
There are elements of the twin dynamic that bear inkling of potential, but the writers decline to ferry any of them to fruition. Dru tries to influence Gru back into the bad guy racket, but Gru is resolute in his life choices. A storyline of the temptation back into crime would have been a golden opportunity to test Gru’s honor as a father. Sadly, the chance to bring this franchise back to its roots is wasted.
While Lucy and the daughters were the focus of the past movies, here they have nothing to do. Lucy shows signs of difficulty connecting with the young girls, but this thread never goes anywhere, and it gives Kristen Wiig little to work with. The daughters have been the weakest characters since the first film, and here they just serve to fill time.
An issue raised with the Minions prequel was that the cheerful klutzes live to serve evil. How does that work when Gru becomes a hero? The discrepancy is corrected here by having most of them quit. This then leads to giving the little goobers a storyline of their own, but none of the minion mayhem on display here is as witty or inspired as the previous Despicable Me’s or the comical Minions movie.
Gru is an impressively rich character in his own right, so asking Steve Carell to double as his twin brother was admittedly a tall order. He understandably comes up short, and the script gives the supporting members very little room to shine on their own. By offering a middling villain, lacking a functioning emotional component, and coming up short on creative gags, Despicable Me 3 underwhelms.