Despicable Me 3 finds reformed villain Gru wrestling with the duties of domestication, a feeling clearly shared by the filmmakers, who labor at times to find a way to push the maturing franchise forward.
In 3, Gru (voice of Steve Carell) is father of three and a husband, with a job in law enforcement that he loses a few minutes into the film. He retreats to the basement man cave beneath his mortgaged suburban home to ponder unemployment, sitting amid the rusty shells of the thermonuclear missiles he once used to ransom world peace.
To make matters worse, he faces a mutiny of minions — they’re as bored by Gru’s new life as he is and strike out on their own.
Gru stews. Going straight has led only to failure as a breadwinner, and he misses the status he once enjoyed as the world’s most feared and most horrible person. He waits for something to break the stalemate.
Enter Dru, the twin brother Gru didn’t know he had, playboy leader of a country called Freedonia (are they Groucho Marx-ists?), where Gru and family immediately head for a visit.
Dru (Carell again) provides shock paddles to a movie that is close to flat-lining — an opening action sequence fizzles, and the movie wastes time reminding us who everyone is. As if, after viewing the Despicables and Minions movies 40 million times with your kids, you could ever forget.
The animators design Dru as a kind of Euro nitwit playboy (with his protrusion of long blond hair, he vaguely resembles Fabio) who lives in a swanky seaside villa. He is the incompetent heir to the family tradition of villainy and has summoned Gru to help him live down to their father’s expectations. This of course adds to Gru’s internal dad-vs.-bad struggle, resolved when he applies his skill set to defeating the world’s reigning supervillain — Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker).
Dru is a reasonably funny invention (Carell gets to do an even more-garbled Lugosi accent). Bratt, not so much. He’s a former mullet-headed 1980s child star now bent on destroying the company town (Hollywood) that rejected him. Jokes about Reagan-era songs, toys, styles, and artifacts make demographic sense — they give mom and dad something to watch — but they need South Park‘s Parker to write them rather than merely voice them. And given the way animation can suspend the laws of physics, the climactic dance-off between Gru and Bratt seems under-imagined.
Also, the idea of stale pop-culture relics posing an existential threat to the entertainment industry feels less like a theme that will engage youngsters and more like the projected fears of the filmmakers themselves.
What keeps the movie watchable, for the most part, are the one-off flourishes built around incidental characters — Gru’s daughter searching for a unicorn, and of course the reliable Minions, who go to a maximum-security penitentiary and immediately form its most hard-core gang.
Despicable Me 3
Directed by Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin and Eric Guillon. Featuring the voices of Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Trey Parker, and Jenny Slate. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (rude humor).
Playing at: Area theaters.