Editor’s Note: The arts and entertainment department is adjusting its grading scale from a letter-grade system to a numeric score out of 5. This change is intended to increase accuracy and consistency between reviews.
“Despicable Me 3” has about eight movies within it that are better than the one that is actually being released — which is a shame because the jumble of storylines, individually at least, spring with heart and potential. But when directors Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda attempt to weave one cohesive film from this mix of subplots, what results resembles less a movie and more a colorful collage patched together by an overly excited four-year-old.
In this latest franchise piece, Gru (Steve Carell) is at a crossroads in his life: after a mishap involving the largest diamond in the world, excessive amounts of explosive bubblegum, Michael Jackson and aptly named child star-turned-supervillain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), Gru and his wife/fellow agent Lucy Wilde (Kristin Wiig) find themselves fired from the Anti-Villain League. They return downtrodden to their adopted daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Nev Scharrel).
Within the span of three films, Gru has gone from supervillain to superspy to super-unemployed, and while this would be an intriguing movie in and of itself, “Despicable Me 3” never gives itself the time to explore this theme. Instead it decides to suddenly introduce Gru’s twin brother, Dru (also Steve Carell). Both brothers, we soon learn, were rejected from their designated parent, neither able to live up to the family legacy of villainy. However, this plot point is also swiftly passed by for the next subplot involving Lucy’s entrance into motherhood, so on and so forth, each subplot with more storytelling potential than the last.
Surprisingly, the film isn’t actually even very funny, for anyone in any age group. Humor has always been one of the most reliable mainstays of the “Despicable Me” franchise, constantly unearthing laughs in the extremities of Gru’s world. Yet, in this third feature, one of the longest sequences, ironically, involves Gru and Dru trying to enact a “trading places” situation for no other apparent reason then “to be funny.” This jig lasts what seems to be five minutes, before every other character is exhausted by the pair’s antics. Even Agnes, who finds brightness in every stuffed animal or bar owner she meets, rolls her eyes, relaying the sentiment of exhausted audience members.
This is only one example of a series of gags that were seemingly taken from better children’s films, diluted, and then pushed clumsily back into the movie with the hope the same effect will take place. It doesn’t. In the era of “Zootopia” and “Kubo and the Two Strings”, kids want and deserve more.
Even the self-referential jokes, a staple in children’s animated films post-”Shrek,” dry up quickly. ”Despicable Me 3” seems to believe that lazy writing is the same thing as satire — Lucy and Gru work for the “Anti-Villain League” and every rural European is obsessed with outdated marriage traditions and cheese. These ideas, which are supposed to make the audience laugh at just how “on the nose” they are, seem to be more of an excuse to not actually venture into any creative territory beyond stereotype. “Despicable Me 3” needed to go beyond laughing at itself or talking down to its audience to actually explore the colorful world it has done a pretty good job creating in its previous iterations.
Ultimately, there is a pounding heart hidden somewhere in “Despicable Me 3.” There’s even a mature discussion later in the film that about how even if we don’t end up getting what we’ve always dreamed of, we make the most with what we have, which might be more beautiful, in the end. But that resonant message is eventually drowned out by the overabundance of subplots and tiring fart jokes. With an ending so open there will most definitely be at least three more sequels, let’s hope that following Despicable Me iterations allow their hearts to shine and not get lost in unexplored opportunities on the way.
Contact Nils Jepson at [email protected].
A previous version of this article misspelled Steve Carell’s name.