To call Despicable Me 3 desperate would be to ascribe too much effort and passion to the thing. Ice Age: Collision Course, now: There was a properly desperate sequel. That beast had a blissed-out hippie temple of eternal youth formed out of radioactive crystals from space that the prehistoric heroes had to launch into orbit in order to avert a doomsday asteroid. That might not be the Platonic essence of desperation in its chemically purest form, but it’s really close.
Now consider the two main developments in Despicable Me 3: Gru meets his long-lost twin brother and battles a smug former child actor stuck in his 1980s glory days. Was anyone even trying, or are they just going through the motions?
You could call Despicable Me 3 a lazy patchwork of random, half-formed bad ideas randomly stitched together. The first movie was about Gru’s redemption through his growing paternal bond with three young orphaned sisters whom he ultimately adopts. In the second movie, he married anti-villain agent Lucy Wilde (Kristin Wiig).
Here there’s a seemingly important early scene with Lucy and the three girls at a local festival in the fictional country of Freedonia, where they are visiting Gru’s brother Dru, also voiced by Carell. (The name Freedonia, a rather pointless reference to the Marx Brothers’ classic Duck Soup, is far from the only pointless reference in the movie. For instance, there are also pointless references to Finding Nemo and Finding Dory.)
The festival scene reveals that Lucy is struggling with the challenges of being a new adoptive mother to the three girls. As a superagent, she’s more than capable of defending them physically from any threat, but mature, responsible young Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) observes Lucy indulging the girls’ every wish and confides that sometimes moms have to be firm and say, “No” — a challenge to which Lucy immediately tries to rise, only to discover that she’s lost track of the two younger girls.
Any notion that Lucy will have a character arc in which, like Gru in the first film, she grows into motherhood (proving herself capable of being appropriately firm, saying, “No” when necessary and keeping her eyes on multiple kids at the same time) falls by the wayside after that scene. Instead, Lucy goes on to prove her maternal worth to the girls by sticking up for or protecting them — the one area where she didn’t need to grow.
There’s more. As an unexpected outcome of that one moment at the festival where Lucy tries to be firm with one of the girls, Margo winds up “engaged” to a sad-sack local boy, who later shows up at the house for his “bride.” With him is his mother, a formidable battle-ax who is nevertheless no match for Lucy and is quickly sent packing, to Margo’s gratitude.
Margo’s “engagement” and that disappointed young boy, like Lucy’s maternal challenges, are never heard from again. The movie is full of halfhearted brainstorming-session notions like this: premises drifting randomly in and out of scenes, spent after accomplishing nothing and leading nowhere.
The main antagonist, Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), is a mullet-headed refugee from a 1980s TV show about a child supervillain. The show was canceled when Bratt hit puberty, but it turns out that being a flamboyant supervillain in real life is no harder than playing one on TV. In fact, it’s exactly the same!
Bratt easily overwhelms armed security forces, defeats high-tech security systems, and repeatedly humiliates anti-villain agents, including Gru and Lucy, all while dancing to an ’80s soundtrack of obvious picks from Michael Jackson and Madonna to A-ha and Van Halen. (One guess which Michael Jack — yeah. Yeah, that one.)
Bratt has an immense supervillain redoubt / lab in the shape of a giant Rubik’s Cube on a remote private island, protected by virtually impenetrable defenses. Immense machines produce the weapons he uses for his crimes, notably his weaponized bubble gum — all without minions or support of any kind, other than one little robot. With each triumph, he comes closer to his ultimate goal: wreaking revenge on Hollywood itself for canceling his show.
A washed-up former child star, clinging to his one claim to fame, yet resentful of the industry that used and abandoned him, is among the most melancholy and pathetic imaginable casualties of pop culture. Casting such a character as a super-competent Public Enemy No. 1 — a far more effective menace than Gru ever was, and with none of Gru’s real-world-ish struggles from the first film (bank loans, anxieties about competitors, etc.) — feels like a betrayal of the character baked into his conception.
Each villainous antagonist in this series has been worse than the last. The original film shrewdly pitted Gru against a snotty, geeky upstart named Vector whose high-tech startup hubris was culturally threatening to the older small-businessman Gru. At the same time, Gru’s rival was frailer than he seemed, socially isolated and dependent on family connections for his success.
Gru’s antagonist in Despicable Me 2, a beefy Latino supervillain called El Macho, had nothing that got under Gru’s skin in the same way, but at least he was a credible threat. (Perhaps the filmmakers could have used El Macho to tap into immigration concerns, but they didn’t.)
Compared to Bratt, Vector and even El Macho were as complicated as Michael Corleone or Walter White. The Despicable Me films have always been silly cartoons, but a silly cartoon universe should still be more realistic than an even sillier kiddie TV show in that silly cartoon universe.
Gru’s twin brother Dru is somewhat better. With his long, silky blond locks, fabulous wealth and charming manner, he certainly gets under Gru’s skin, though he also has feet of clay. At least Dru brings out a side of Gru we haven’t seen before; a scene where the two of them can barely contain their hilarity as each pretends to be the other might be the movie’s funniest scene.
I see I have yet to mention the Minions. For the most part they’re in their own movie, having given up in disgust on the reformed Gru and going their own way.
Their scenes, which include an appearance on a Simon Cowell-style TV talent show and a stint in jail, are exactly as funny or unfunny as the Minions have been since Illumination figured out they were merchandising gold. Like the Penguins of the Madagascar films, these gibberish-spouting Tater Tots have kept this franchise on life support long past what should have been its death rattle.
Caveat Spectator: Slapstick violence and disaster-type mayhem; mild crude humor. Kids and up.