It’s perhaps only fitting that Illumination Entertainment has subsequently dwindled our goodwill and enthusiasm for its cash-printing film series with “Despicable Me 3,” the latest — and arguably most shallow —installment in this frantically, now frustratingly bombastic animated trilogy. Starting with 2010’s moderately charming “Despicable Me,” Illumination presented a cuddly, giddy, highly energetic original family feature that took the right notes from the cartoon slapstick comedy of yore. It was silly and slaphappy, but it was unapologetically sweet and insistently cute too. It was an all-ages delight that wasn’t afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve, and was a win-win for family movie nights everywhere. It made sense why it took the world by storm, and it didn’t hurt that those little Twinkie-shaped Minions were practically test marketed to sell toys off the shelf.
To the animation house’s credit, 2013’s “Despicable Me 2” was even more consistently charming and continually amusing — even if it, expectedly, didn’t quite have the same emotional resonance as the original film. But 2015’s inevitable spin-off “Minions,” while mildly entertaining in its own right, reeked of corporate influence, and by that point, the overmarketed franchise was more well-known for its quickly cumbersome yellow sidekick characters than Gru or his central family dynamic, which was ultimately the key to the first two movies’ overwhelming success. Sure, “Minions” exploded the box office because ultimately no young child can resist those plushy, bespectacled, overall-wearing creatures, but for most audiences over the age of 12, the appeal of the “Despicable Me” brand was quickly waning. The straw that finally breaks the cash cow’s back is “Despicable Me 3,” a sometimes inspired, mildly likable, but mostly tedious and unnecessary sequel that’s too cluttered and overzealous to earn its predecessors’ breezy affections.
Gru (Steve Carell), once one of the world’s most dangerous villains, has toned down his act considerably in recent years. Married to fellow Anti-Villain League (AVI) agent Lucy (Kristen Wiig) and adopted father to the adorable Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Nev Scharrel), Gru is saving the world rather than trying to cause its demise — much to the dismay of his chaos-friendly minions. In their latest world-saving effort, Gru and Lucy set out to take down Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker, in a very rare kid-friendly turn), the former child star of the popular, if tragically short-lived, cheesy ’80s TV series “Evil Bratt,” who seeks world domination in order to regain his acclaim. The trouble is, Bratt proves to be a far more challenging adversary, and Gru is defeated.
In light of his failure, Gru and Lucy lose their positions at the AVI under their new director, the no-nonsense Valarie Da Vinci (Jenny Slate), forcing them to look for work elsewhere. It’s around this time, however, that Gru gets an unexpected message from his unknown twin brother, the happy-go-lucky billionaire Dru (Carell), who requests his brother’s presence in his spacious countryside abode in Freedonia. It’s there where Gru learns about his family legacy of villainy, which has been passed down for generations, something Dru — for all his good fortunes (including his luscious wavy blonde hair) — could never achieve. With his twin brother’s help, however, he wants to make his recently deceased father proud by proving himself just as cunning and masterful a villain as his sibling. Gru, of course, is hesitant, but he can’t resist the urge to break bad once more, use all his brother’s neat gadgets and evil tools, and to seize the opportunity to stop Bratt once-and-for-all.
Meanwhile, there are several other subplots happening simultaneously, including one involving Lucy trying to be a good adopted mother, Agnes trying desperately to find a unicorn and the majority of the Minions wandering in vain to find their new evil boss and, in the process, finding themselves in the slammer. It’s weirdly a lot of plot for the busy-but-generally-pretty-straightforward “Despicable Me” series. Even at 90 minutes, “Despicable Me 3” feels long, in a way these movies typically do not. As a result, none of these plotlines get any proper attention, which kills most of the intended emotional impact. The relationship between Gru and Dru is admirably sincere in its execution, with Carell giving a heartfelt pair of vocal performances, yet under Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio‘s unfocused screenplay, their storyline is never as emotionally fulfilling as the main family focal points in the first two movies. As a result, the film is scattershot and unkempt, favoring wacky and usually tiresome slapstick gags over any real pathos or emotional resonance. “Despicable Me 3” is all the fussiness without the usual heart and charm, resulting in the most soulless entree in the series to date.
While the script is weaker, however, the visuals are only more beautiful. The computer-generated animation is once again just stunning in its bubbly, expressive design, all while continuing Illumination’s incredible attention to backgrounds and scenery that was highlighted throughout last year’s “The Secret Life of Pets” and “Sing.” Even when you find yourself numbed by the no-longer-endearing looniness in this sequel, you’re nevertheless glued to the wonders that are presented on the screen. There’s nothing that depresses me quite like gorgeous animation used to mediocre storytelling (I’m also looking at you, “The Emoji Movie“), but you can’t dismiss quality moviemaking when it’s so vividly projected in front of you. Illumination might not be presenting Pixar-level stories just yet, but their animation is top notch.
If only these incredible resources were used for something that wasn’t quite as meandering and commercial-focused as “Despicable Me 3.” Returning directors Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda find clever inspiration in Bratt’s retro villainy and his brightly colored evil lair, which is like if a Bond villain’s island hideout fell ill to “I Love the ’80s“-itis, but these refreshingly amusing sequences, with the admittedly game Parker, are so infrequent that they can’t save the film’s overwhelming emptiness. Undemanding children might giggle, and their accompanying parents have likely seen worse, but that doesn’t excuse the lack of warmth, sentiment and genuine laughs in “Despicable Me 3.” With their ballooned popularity and Illumination’s incessant commercialization of their once-beloved property, it was only a matter of time before this animated series became more despicable than not. “Despicable Me 3” is sadly a discouraging, hollow sequel that’s hard to love. [C+]