Here’s one to distract the kids. Despicable Me 3 (styled Despicable M3), the latest animated adventure to feature the neckless, pick-nosed ex-villain Gru (Steve Carell) and his gibberishy, Twinkoid, banana-sucking Minions, finds our grumpy hero enlisting the help of his long-lost twin brother, Dru (Carell again), in order to foil Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), the former child star of the hit 1980s TV show Evil Bratt (catchphrase: “I’ve been a bad boy!”), who is now a moonwalking super-criminal armed with Rubik’s Cube bombs, thermic yo-yos, and a grappling Walkman. Those who have seen too many of these things may recall that “Gru” is supposed to be the character’s last name and might even point out that it doesn’t make any sense for his brother to be named “Dru,” but who really cares? The reunion is occasioned by a trip to Gru’s hitherto unmentioned homeland of Freedonia (yes, like the country in Duck Soup), whose mustachioed, beret-wearing, cheese-gobbling denizens give the largely French creative team of this franchise ample room to poke fun at their own tired national stereotypes without actually bothering to come up with any gags. Bratt, a collection of ’80s jokes that are themselves about 20 years out of date, is more tolerable, if only because the Reagan-era hits that accompany his every move (“Bad,” “Physical,” “Money For Nothing,” “Jump,” “99 Luftballons,” etc.) offer a welcome break from the series’ usual soundtrack of incongruous Pharrell Williams-penned pop songs. And then there are the Minions, who perform the “Major-General’s Song” from The Pirates Of Penzance in high-pitched gobbledygook.
To be fair, the Minions—those be-goggled familiars of pure merchandising—get a bad rap, as they’re the closest thing the Despicable Me series has to a reliable source of entertainment and cartoon weirdness. (Their solo outing, the underappreciated Minions, is also pretty morbid and amoral for a kids’ movie.) Apart from those little pokey yellow things, the character designs remain stiff and ugly, randomly pieced together from a junk drawer full of spindly legs, barrel torsos, and huge schnozzes; although Despicable Me 3 spares younger viewers the sight of Dr. Nefario, the Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2 supporting character who looked like he was imported from the Harkonen home world in David Lynch’s Dune, it does add what appears to be a grotesque, ballooning caricature of Gerard Depardieu, as well as the sight of the Bosc-pear-inspired Silas Ramsbottom (Steve Coogan) being unceremoniously excreted down a small aperture by his toucan-faced successor at the Anti-Villain League, Valerie Da Vinci (Jenny Slate). Gru, too, ends up getting canned by the new boss, along with his wife and crime-fighting partner, the stick-figured Lucy (Kristen Wiig), a character that Despicable Me 3 can’t figure out how to use. The plan, then, is for Gru to get back in the Anti-Villain League’s good graces by recovering the watermelon-sized Dumont Diamond (that would be another Marx Brothers reference) from Bratt, which involves fooling Dru—who always longed for the thrill of super-crime, but had to contend with merely growing up super-rich—into thinking that they’re pulling off a villainous heist.
Maybe this plotline could be poignant, were there not a bunch of similarly useless subplots vying for the audience’s partial attention. The youngest of Gru’s adorable adopted daughters, Agnes (Nev Scharrel), is searching the forests of Freedonia for a unicorn, while the eldest, 12-year-old Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), has been accidentally promised in marriage to a local boy after eating from his cheese plate at a local festival. There is, of course, a middle daughter, Edith, but she doesn’t seem to be doing anything. Any viewer hoping for some goofy, gibbering Minions slapstick to interrupt the lazy, hacky plotting is out of luck, because the miniature abominations have abandoned their master and are now in prison. And so, what limited visual creativity Despicable Me 3 has to offer comes mostly through elaborate super-villain gadgetry, cartoony chase scenes (none of which can hold a candle to Dreamworks’ absurdist Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted and Penguins Of Madagascar), and excursions into the carpeted retro interior of Bratt’s lair, which is also shaped like a Rubik’s Cube, because Illumination Entertainment seems to have run out of ’80s references somewhere in the concept art phase. (It should be noted that this is the second animated film of 2017 to feature a cassette-playing ’80s toy robot as a sidekick, and, sad as it is to say, the one in Rock Dog is better.) There are moments of self-mockery, swipes at Pixar, and references to everything from classic European kids’ comics to Illumination’s own stable of lucrative Dr. Seuss licenses to, yes, the Marx Brothers; what’s sorely missing is any sense of loopy internal anarchy. Does the sight of a mulleted figure in shoulder pads blasting away his foes with a weaponized keytar sound mildly amusing? Congratulations, you’ll be able to sit through this.