I never thought I’d complain about a Despicable Me movie having too much plot. Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda’s latest entry in Universal Pictures’ unexpected franchise juggernaut feels less like a single movie than a jumble of half a dozen unrelated subplots, all vying for screentime, all struggling to rise above a general vapidity established by animation studio Illumination Entertainment’s title card which features not one, but two different fart jokes. This is screenwriting by way of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies card set. The miracle isn’t that the film manages to wrangle a handful of these subplots into a semi-satisfying finale, but that it manages to transcend its own mundanity for moments of genuine warmth and cleverness. But, oy, they’re so few and so far between.
Subplot #1: retired criminal mastermind Gru (Steve Carell) and his new wife Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig) get fired from their job as agents for the Anti-Villain League after failing to apprehend Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), a former child star gone insane who steals the world’s most expensive diamond.
Subplot #2: Gru discovers he has a twin brother named Dru (Carell again, delivering his lines seemingly after a swift kick in the nads), a pig baron on the vaguely European island of Freedonia, a mishmash of German accents, swarthy Italian grandmothers, and French turophilia. Dru asks Gru to help him become a great super-villain. (And before you ask, no, despite naming the island “Freedonia,” Coffin and Balda don’t include a SINGLE Marx Brothers reference!)
Subplot #3: Lucy struggles to adjust to her new role as mother to Gru’s irascible adopted daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Nev Scharrel).
Subplot #4: After a terrible cultural misunderstanding, the 12-year old Margo finds herself engaged to a corpulent Freedonian boy.
Subplot #5: Edith and Agnes travel into the forests of Freedonian to capture a unicorn.
Subplot #6: Frustrated with his abandonment of villainy, the Minions quit their jobs as Gru’s henchman and, through a wacky set of circumstances, find themselves locked up in prison.
Honestly, the biggest surprise in Despicable Me 3 is that the Minions didn’t have more screentime. After the preposterous $1.159 billion in profits made on their stand-alone spinoff movie Minions (2015), one would assume this film would be a shallow pretense for 90+ minutes of Minion shenanigans. But Coffin and Balda keep their scattershot focus on their human characters, with mixed results. The scenes with Lucy and the girls (or “gy-urrrllls” as Dru pronounces in his Slavic/Russian/ancient Mesopotamian accent) are the best, and as with Despicable Me 2 Wiig reveals an uncanny knack for manic yet emotionally resonant voice acting. The same cannot be said for the relationship between Gru and Dru: their scenes are the most blasé and predictable in the film, at least for people who’ve read enough comic books or watched enough soap operas for the Unknown Twin Sibling twist to seem old hat. And I suspect that even those who haven’t will find their scenes grating and tedious.
The film’s greatest saving grace is Balthazar Bratt, a character so preposterous and over-the-top that I wish he could get his own spin-off movie. Coffin and Balda knew damn well what they were doing when they cast Parker for the role, as Bratt is essentially a one-off South Park character and Parker plays him as such. After his hit 80s television show where he played a child super villain was canceled after he hit puberty, Bratt went insane and began to believe that he was his character from the show. So he goes about his nefarious evil-doing as a physical embodiment of the 80s. His weapons of choice are a supersonic keytar and super-expanding chewing gum, his outfit is a purple jumpsuit complemented with parachute pants and foot length shoulder pads, and his sidekick is an evil R.O.B. knock-off. He lives in a giant tower with such preposterous interior decorating that the Memphis Group would tell him to tone it down. And, most significantly, he carries out his crimes to a grooving 80s soundtrack, including the film’s opening heist scene where he steals the aforementioned diamond while dancing to Michael Jackson’s Bad, proving that enough time has passed that we can once again use Jackson’s music in kid’s movies. I hope he comes back.