In just seven years, Illumination Entertainment has turned the grouchy, pointy-nosed villain Gru and his yellow Minions into some of the most recognizable characters in all of pop culture. They’ve starred in multiple movies, they show up in theme parks, you can buy their toys, and so on. The characters are ubiquitous. This feat of marketing is even more fascinating in its success considering that the Despicable Me franchise has yet to produce a truly good film, a streak sadly continued by the latest, Despicable Me 3. Like the first two films, as well as the obnoxious Minions spin-off film from 2015, this new entry is a loud, manic, and frantic extended episode of an overly familiar sitcom.
Steve Carell returns as the voice of Gru, who is unceremoniously fired from the Anti-Villain League for his continued failure in capturing the current title-holder for the most nefarious villain in the world, the 1980s-obsessed Balthazar Bratt (voiced by Trey Parker, a long way from South Park). As Gru figures out his next steps, he learns that he has a long-lost twin brother Dru (also Carell); upon meeting him, Gru must handle his jealousy at Dru’s upbeat personality, his expansive material wealth, and his flowing blonde hair. A few subplots are sprinkled around the A plot, serving as time-wasters: the Minions abandon Gru and get stuck in prison; Gru’s wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) struggles to handle adoptive motherhood with Gru’s kids; and one of those daughters tries to find a real-life unicorn near Dru’s mansion in the country of Freedonia.
Ah yes, Freedonia. You may recognize that name from one of t
he greatest comedies of all time, Duck Soup, starring the Marx Brothers. It’s one of a number of overly confident references made in this film, by writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio & directors Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda that exist for no good reason. Take, for instance, the bit where the Minions use an underwater vehicle to nearly run over two clownfish that look suspiciously like Marlin and Nemo from Pixar’s wonderful Finding Nemo. Illumination Entertainment has made a mark in Hollywood very quickly; their films are made cheaply, feature big-name stars, and rake in a lot of dough. (Minions, for all of its lazy humor, made a billion dollars worldwide, which explains why there’s a sequel on the way.) But their hubris in name-checking much, much, much better films only serves as a reminder that you could be watching something else. Despicable Me 3 is as rote and familiar as Illumination’s other work.
Is it possible that Gru and Dru will have familial issues that they have to get over to become better friends? Will the Minions regret their decision to leave Gru behind? Does Lucy get a crash course in the appropriate ways of being a mother? Did you figure out the purpose of asking these obvious questions already? Anyone remotely familiar with sitcoms of the last 50 years will recognize each story beat and character arc of Despicable Me 3, which doesn’t automatically have to be a bad thing; even Pixar films can utilize recognizable storytelling arcs for its unique characters and worlds, but they do so with wit and charm and effortless ease. Despicable Me 3 feels less despicable and more desperate. It’s fascinating as a piece of cultural anthropology, but nothing more.
As has been the case in the previous entries, the best part – really, the only good part – of the film is Carell, who luckily gets a good deal more to do here than in the 2013 sequel. He doesn’t do much to differentiate his Eastern European-accented Gru from his brother Dru, aside from introducing a higher pitch. It is, however, suitably goofy. Mercifully, while the Minions do get their own nonsense subplot (complete with a Gilbert and Sullivan reference when they get stuck at an America’s Got Talent-style reality show), they’re onscreen a lot less than in Despicable Me 2. Parker is the most curious factor of the film: this is, essentially, his first role outside of the South Park universe in a long time. Bratt, whose entire life revolves around the TV show he starred on as a child and who listens to ’80s songs to get himself in a criminal mood, feels like the kind of lazy and obnoxious character that South Park would make fun of back in its earlier, edgier days. Yet here we are.
This weekend, as luck would have it, there are two new movies in which criminals pull off incredible heists while blasting eclectic music on handheld devices: Despicable Me 3 and Edgar Wright’s wonderful Baby Driver. If you are able to see just one of those movies, see Baby Driver. If you can see both movies, see Baby Driver twice. Despicable Me 3 is very much of a piece with the other films in the franchise, as well as the other films from Illumination Entertainment. It cobbles together elements of movies and TV shows that we’ve all seen before, with a cast of famous actors (though fewer than last year’s Sing or The Secret Life of Pets), and figures that’s enough. As has been the case before, those ingredients do not make Despicable Me 3 anything other than boring and dumb.