After the billion-plus-grossing spin-off movie, Minions, in turn spawned from a marketing machine that has taken the world by storm, it’s almost a strange prospect to return to original Despicable Me protagonist, Gru and his story in an all-new mainline follow-up. Regardless though, that’s exactly the aim of Despicable Me 3, the latest effort from Illumination Entertainment, who have managed to groom at least one all-star movie franchise at this point, even if Gru seems to have been firmly overtaken at the box office and in our cultural consciousness by his tiny yellow underlings.
Despicable Me 3 is also often the textbook definition of a third installment in a forced trilogy that doesn’t necessarily need to exist, and with another Minions movie on the way in 2020, there’s no true guarantee that Gru’s own adventures may even stop here. While this is still a functional Despicable Me movie that will entertain people who have already come to love these movies, there really isn’t much here for people who aren’t already Despicable Me fans. Gru’s latest tale doesn’t quite have the same sense of heart or cleverness as the two previous Despicable Me movies, sadly placing it more along the lines of the acceptable, but rather middling Minions movie in terms of its final product.
Steve Carell returns to the role of Gru, the former super-villain now turned super-agent alongside his returning wife, Lucy, voiced by Kristen Wiig. In Despicable Me 3, Gru discovers that he has a long lost twin brother, Dru, who is also voiced by Steve Carell, and was sent to live with Gru’s previously-thought-dead father. With Gru’s father now having actually passed away, Gru’s mother, once again voiced by Julie Andrews, finally confesses to Gru the existence of Dru, after Gru undergoes a significant career shift with the Anti-Villain League from the previous Despicable Me 2. Thus, Gru takes his wife and daughters to go meet his brother in a fictional European country, where Dru is shown to be very rich, and not at all villain material.
In the first two movies, Gru’s character had a very clearly established emotional hurdle to overcome, whether it was through ending up with his three adopted daughters in the first movie, or learning to trust and work with Lucy in the second movie. In the third movie however, the emotional impact of Gru discovering that he has a brother isn’t really there, sadly. The movie tries its best to create some challenges and trying conflicts for Gru and Dru, and Carell definitely remains a highlight in this movie, especially now that he’s humourously interacting with himself in many scenes, but the whole twin brother angle doesn’t carry any true emotional weight. It feels very much like a gimmick, because Despicable Me 3 doesn’t manage to find an effective justification for existing.
Similarly, most of the established supporting characters just bumble around and don’t really do much. The daughters’ story arcs are completely irrelevant in this movie most notably, and feel like they’re entirely played for simple laughs. There is something of a conflict explored when Lucy tries to learn how to be an effective adopted mother to Agnes, Edith and Margo, but it’s so under-developed that it doesn’t truly matter. Even the Anti-Villain League is barely a factor in this movie, for reasons that are made clear right from the very beginning. This leads to the feeling that a good chunk of Gru’s character development from Despicable Me 2 is frustratingly swept away, especially when Dru seemingly wants him to become a villain again in this third movie. Finally, Russell Brand actually doesn’t return as Doctor Nefario in Despicable Me 3, with a fairly amusing excuse given as to why that is, but he is missed nonetheless.
Unsurprisingly, there’s two major forces that end up stealing Despicable Me 3, with one of them naturally being the Minions. The Minions are gated off into a subplot that doesn’t serve any narrative purpose, but it does inject some better jokes into a movie that’s sometimes wanting for them. The other driving force of humour and fun in Despicable Me 3 is our latest villain threat and antagonist to Gru, Balthazar Bratt, voiced by South Park’s Trey Parker of all people. Amazingly, Parker never feels out of his element as Bratt, existing as an intentionally hokey walking 1980’s cliche that can only stretch some of his jokes so far, but does nonetheless steal most of the scenes he’s in, due to his incredible comedic energy. Bratt does disappointingly end up buried under a pile of other story arcs fighting for attention at times, but at least he does prove to be another entertaining and memorable enemy to Gru.
Despicable Me 3 often feels like it couldn’t commit to a strong enough central story idea, so instead, it just throws everything at the wall and sees what sticks. There’s a surprising amount of story arcs fighting for attention in this movie, between Gru discovering and meeting his twin brother, Bratt trying to find renewed relevance through his villainous agenda, the Minions being incarcerated and taking over a prison, Lucy wanting to learn how to be a mother to Gru’s adopted daughters, and a whole bunch of other story developments that I can’t really go into without some considerable spoilers. You will quickly notice however that Despicable Me 3 often feels like it lacks focus, despite unfolding over a fairly brisk 90-minute runtime.
The scattered storytelling without an effective sense of cohesion is probably the biggest sign that Despicable Me 3 doesn’t effectively justify its existence. It feels like the movie unfolds as more of an extended television cartoon than a truly realized feature film, much like Minions did before it. This is a shame, since the first two Despicable Me movies did a considerably better job of stitching together a tight, gratifying storyline with a clearly defined character arc for Gru. Despicable Me 3 meanwhile feels like it just chronicles Gru and his family screwing around, and not necessarily achieving any more character progression. If you just want an amusing, disposable sequel to an established animated movie franchise, that works, but it’s frustrating to see Despicable Me 3 fail to realize so many of its story concepts, and fall so far beneath the more emotionally meaty storylines from the first two movies.
The co-direction of Chris Renaud is really missed in Despicable Me 3, since Renaud must have been a considerable part of the reason why the first two Despicable Me movies felt so much better put together in terms of their narratives. Instead, regular Despicable Me director, Pierre Coffin is now joined by Minions director, Kyle Balda for Despicable Me 3, with some more co-direction done by frequent Illumination Entertainment animation artist, Eric Guillon. The fact that Balda is once again substituting for Renaud might explain why Despicable Me 3 seems to take more after the production style of Minions than its two direct predecessors, which makes for a movie that’s clearly accessible for children and families, though one that still fails to replicate the better sense of character depth and heart that was present during so much of the first two Despicable Me movies.
Still, Coffin, Balda and Guillon do nonetheless realize a movie that is very well-presented and full of character, even when the depth of the personalities and storytelling clearly takes a hit in Despicable Me 3. At the very least, the sense of vibrant charm to the world of Despicable Me is still recognizable in this latest installment, which is still presented in an effectively creative and fun fashion. I’ll get to the visuals more in the appropriate paragraph, but even as Despicable Me 3 sometimes feels like it lacks the same sense of heart that was much more present in the first two Despicable Me movies, it certainly does look the part of a Despicable Me movie, and is fittingly not difficult to watch as an easy viewing.
Pharrell Williams maintains his association with the Despicable Me franchise by continuing to assist with the soundtrack in Despicable Me 3, alongside main composer, Heitor Pereira. It’s a pleasant enough soundtrack, and is pretty faithful to the conventions of the series. Like Despicable Me 3 in general, there isn’t too much to read into regarding the movie’s sugary music suite, but the Pharrell songs are fun, and some of the other licensed tunes are not bad, going along with the dated 80’s B-list pop style of villain, Balthazar Bratt.
The rest of the audio work is naturally very slapstick-y, and again, goes along with the movie leaning especially heavily into its cartoon sensibilities. Even the action scenes are very intentionally fluffy and inoffensive, even more than the previous two Despicable Me movies, though there are some clever audio gags here and there even in this latest sequel. There still isn’t much to say about the sound design in Despicable Me 3, since it’s exactly what you’d expect, but it still works.
Despicable Me 3 continues to be very well animated, and continues to represent some of the best visual design work out of Illumination Entertainment. This latest sequel is once again very vibrant, colourful and easy to look at, even during its more scattered and less funny scenes, and kids especially will continue to be taken by the animation, if not the story. There’s still a lot of energy to the animation, especially with Balthazar Bratt, but everything is also still very easy to follow. Again, it’s about what you would expect from the visuals of a Despicable Me movie, but the visual design of these movies has always been pretty great, so that’s certainly not a bad thing.
As for the 3D presentation in Despicable Me 3, it’s once again pretty good overall. The 3D is just a bit more understated here than it was in the previous two Despicable Me movies, and even Minions for the most part, but it’s still pretty effectively done, and does help this latest sequel ‘pop’ a bit more. As with the previous movies in this franchise, I’d most recommend seeing Despicable Me 3 in 3D if you’re going to see it at all, where you’ll get significantly more out of the vibrant animation. Either way though, you are getting another movie that does a great job of flexing the visual talents of Illumination Entertainment, a studio that definitely knows how to make visually appealing movies, even if they don’t always have the narrative quality to match the presentation.
Despicable Me 3 really didn’t need to exist, and falls considerably beneath the quality of its two direct predecessors, even if it does at least manage to be a small improvement over the more noticeably middling Minions. Like I said, if you really like the Despicable Me franchise, then you’ll have fun with this third movie, even if you’ll definitely be revisiting the first two movies a lot more enthusiastically. Likewise, kids will continue to be entertained by Despicable Me 3, between its appealing animation and charming personalities, so if you’re looking for a simple family night out at the movies, this movie will do nicely, even if Cars 3 and especially Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie make for noticeably better animated Summer flicks at this point.
Three movies in, and not counting Minions of course, Gru’s story doesn’t really feel like it has any interesting new territory left to explore, and maybe it’s best if Illumination wraps up the Despicable Me movies here, or at the very least takes a long break from them. The addition of a lost twin brother for Gru doesn’t ultimately create a very interesting narrative hook, and that’s just one of many story elements that are all fighting for attention in a patchwork sequel that’s constructed by various half-baked ideas. It’s all fine, and none of it is bad or offensive, but it’s just a shame that Despicable Me 3 so frequently fails to keep pace with its far superior direct predecessors. Frankly, if this must go on, Illumination probably is better off just making this movie franchise about the Minions from here on out, because it quickly seems like it’s becoming more about the cash than the quality for the brand that Gru originally built.