Despite its massive worldwide success, Despicable Me has been a franchise desperate to find balance after its initial film. Despicable Me 2 disregarded the “family is what you make it” message of the original, and Minions decided to just give the damn kids what they want: more unintelligible yellow creatures obsessed with bananas. With the fourth film in what should be marketed as the “Minioniverse,” Despicable Me 3 tries to push itself further that before and give plots to all its various characters, while by the end providing a film with even less substance than a Minion banana.
Despicable Me 3 comes together like a series of shorts, all ridiculous and lacking any real narrative purpose. Gru (Steve Carell) and his new wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) are fired from their job at the Anti-Villain League, after failing to capture the 80s-loving villain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker). The AVL is under new management by a no-nonsense boss Valerie Da Vinci (Jenny Slate), who shows up to fire the newlyweds and then disappears from the rest of the film, setting up a plot that for the most part completely ends at soon as it starts.
Jobless and uncertain about his next move, Gru is contacted by his long-lost twin brother Dru (also voiced by Carell), and is invited to his luxurious mansion in Freedonia (yes, the same country from the Marx brother’s Duck Soup), where Dru tries to convince Gru to go back to his villainous ways. Meanwhile, Lucy is trying to become more like a mother to Gru’s three daughters, while their youngest daughter Agnes (Nev Scharrel) is convinced that the lands of Freedonia are home to a unicorn that she is dedicated to finding.
Oh and the Minions you ask? All but two quit, once they come to the realization that Gru has no plans to return to a life of crime, then almost immediately are sent to jail. As they should be for their crimes against humanity.
Despicable Me 3’s greatest prospect is Parker’s Balthazar Bratt, an 80s child star, whose show was cancelled once he hit puberty. Now believing himself to be his TV character’s evil persona, he uses his love of the 80s to become a master criminal. Brett’s arsenal includes self-inflating bubble gum, a powerful keytar, and an army of toys created in his image, appropriately named “The Bratt Pack.”
Bratt is emblematic of many of Despicable Me 3’s ideas, in that if done well, it could be something worthwhile and fun. But as with almost everything in Despicable Me 3, the film goes for the easy jokes and doesn’t strive to do anything fantastic with the material. Bratt is exactly the one-note character that you’d expect him to be, right down to literally moonwalking his way through his crimes. Considering he’s essentially a child commodity that was bought/sold and spit out by Hollywood, Despicable Me 3 could have at least commented on that. Instead, Bratt simply goes to Hollywood with the intent to destroy it. Even Parker is wasted, playing the rare part he himself did not write for himself, so he comes off like it’s a role that could’ve been taken on by anyone.
But also consider, who the hell is Bratt even for? The only humor kids will likely get from Bratt is that he looks silly, sporting the trifecta of flat top, bald spot, and mullet. For the adults in the audience, the nostalgia Bratt presents is just a reminder of the past, and not actually doing anything interesting with it.
Despicable Me 3 simply doesn’t try. There are references to Pixar films and the aforementioned Marx brothers, but they’re referenced and that’s the joke. Written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, who have been with the franchise since the beginning, Despicable Me 3 is almost like these two realized no matter what they write, kids are going to lap it up, therefore they go for the bare minimum.
What made this franchise work in the first installment was a combination of anti-hero weirdness that wasn’t overwhelming, the Minions, and a huge amount of heart. Despicable Me didn’t always come together, but its strengths were greater than its weaknesses and made for an impressively sweet story. But Despicable Me 3 strains itself too much with various middling stories, a lack of humor, and no cohesion that brings its characters together in a fulfilling way. Despicable Me 3 still has all the elements that were there in the original. It just can’t figure out how to combine them with real ideas, then just settle for good enough.