Let’s get this out of the way: Your kids are going to love “Despicable Me 3.” My 5 year old cackled and cheered at every bit of mayhem. For the target audience, this film delivers.
As for me? Five minutes in, I was ready to grab an aspirin but worried that the yellow-coated tablets would induce Minion-related flashbacks.
The “Despicable Me” franchise finally goes the route of “Shrek,” with a clever opening chapter followed by sequels that squeeze every bit of wit from the premise, leaving nothing but an exhausting barrage of bright colors and loud noises. The first film was slight but sweet, with Steve Carrell doing charming voice work as Gru, a villain who learns to be a dad. The film balanced Looney Tunes humor with a heartwarming story, and the Minions were amusing distractions, not movie-stealing annoyances. “Despicable Me 2” was a pleasant if forgettable romantic comedy that gave Gru a wife named Lucy (Kristen Wiig). “Minions” centered on the franchise’s beloved side characters, stretching out their antics to feature length and demolishing whatever goodwill I had toward them.
But at least “Minions” had a plot I could follow, not a collision of jumbled story threads. At least it had jokes, not formless ideas that never coalesce into anything funny. Its characters may have grated, but they didn’t cause me to groan in exasperation every time they showed up on screen the way I did with Dru, Gru’s twin brother (also voiced by Carrell at a much shriller octave).
Dru, who lives in the country of Fredonia (a Marx Brothers reference it never earns), was raised by the father Gru never knew, for reasons explained away with a shrug by his mother (Julie Andrews, cashing what I assume is a pretty sweet check for two minutes of voice work). Much like Gru was seen as a failure by his mom, Dru was a disappointment to his father, a supervillain who died without ever knowing his other son — which seems weird, since the first film positioned Gru as the world’s top villain; you’d think they’d run in the same circles. Dru wants Gru (are you keeping up?) to teach him how to become a villain to live up to his father’s legacy, unaware that Gru has given up his evil ways to take down villains with Lucy and care for his three girls. Thankfully, there’s something Gru does want to steal: the world’s largest diamond, which has been absconded with by TV child actor-turned-villain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), a baddie who sports both a flat top and a mullet and whose entire gag is basically “hey, remember the ’80s?” Gru has to do it without the Minions, however, who’ve gone on strike. Meanwhile, Lucy is trying to learn how to be a beloved mom and Agnes, the couple’s youngest daughter, is on a quest to find a unicorn.
If you’re exhausted reading this, imagine how I felt watching it. The movie doesn’t have a plot so much as a collection of half-baked incidents that feel awkwardly pasted together in a film that doesn’t so much move as just…happen. Yes, Gru fails to capture Bratt at the beginning, but he doesn’t think about him again until the film’s final 20 minutes; during the rest of the time, the film cuts away to Bratt doing a Jane Fonda workout or watching old episodes of his TV show, with the joke just being “it’s retro, so it’s funny.” There’s no emotion or humor to Gru and Dru’s reunion, just sub-“Step Brother” jokes about juvenile antics. The Minions get into antics that might have been cute as shorts but fall flat as subplots, and poor Lucy’s storyline never amount to anything. The film has three credited directors — Eric Guillion, Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin — and it feels like each one made his own movie and then they handed all three versions over to an editor without consulting a script. It’s 90 minutes, but so aimless that it feels much longer.
Carrell can be very funny, but he’s always had a weakness for grating shtick. While he still gets a few chuckles from Gru’s grumpiness, Dru is one of the most obnoxious characters in recent film history. He looks like Gru, but dresses in white and has a head of luxurious hair. Carrell voices him with an accent that sounds like he’s constantly squealing in delight, and several full scenes consist solely of Carrell bantering back and forth with himself. That squeezes out an already diminished supporting cast (Russell Brand doesn’t return as Dr. Nefario, Steve Coogan is unceremoniously replaced and even the Minions seem whittled down in number). Wiig is wasted, which should be a crime, and the film never takes full advantage of Parker’s talents. The “South Park” co-creator can often make me laugh just with the voice he gives one of his characters; here, Bratt could be played by anyone.
The film never thuds the way other comedies (ahem, “Baywatch”) have this summer. That would seem to be faint praise, except that it’s less because the movie does anything right and more because it’s too lazy and unambitious to do much wrong. It just sits there, a parade of images and noises to kill time. The approach to humor is just “louder,” and by the end I’d lost any joy in even the colorful, inventive visuals. The film washed over me, even as my son laughed (I need to double-down on his film education).
I’m know I’m not supposed to be hard on this because it’s a kid’s movie. But I don’t buy that. In the age of “Zootopia,” “Paddington,” “Kubo and the Two Strings” and “The BFG,” the excuse that kid’s movies don’t have to be good holds no water. Besides, this series has made me laugh before. “Despicable Me 3” shouldn’t be graded on a curve because it’s a kid’s movie; it should be criticized fairly because it’s a bad one.