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Despicable Me 3: Diminishing returns of its tiresome gimmicks

Despicable Me 3 steps up the franchise's core strengths--visual comedy and cornball lessons about family--but suffers from the diminishing returns of its gimmicks.

As if we weren’t aware of its bottom line after three movies (including the spin-off Minions), Despicable Me 3 must twist its figurative knife (i.e. the Minions’ notorious group laughs and farts) when the company logo appears. Illumination Entertainment, the animation branch of Universal, has been passing around its fair share of 3D-animated movies since the first Despicable Me’s financial success. Despite lazy writing in adult standard, the family comedies are more than enough to amuse its target audience—fun-loving tykes while still hauling movie tickets from their parents or guardians. Though borrowing a lot from Disney/Pixar, the Despicable Me franchise also raises its self-aggrandizing voice by slickly employing cartoon physics, kid-friendly geometric designs, and candy-colored animation. Upholding this style without storytelling novelty, the third movie is still appealing to kids and more accessible for adults.

After an absurd taunting on two Disney/Pixar characters, the movie follows newly-named Grucy—the duo Gru (Steve Carell) and Lucy (Kristen Wiig)—on their mission to arrest the villain Balthazar Bratt (voiced by South Park co-creator Trey Parker), who still sports the mullet hairstyle and a shoulder-padded shell suit. Bratt was a product of ‘80s Hollywood; he starred in a popular TV show before his unavoidable puberty takes away the fame. Thus, Bratt became so engulfed in the character he took on that alter ego, Evil Bratt, and held a grudge against Hollywood. Everything about him screams the ‘80s—pop culture references, his crush on Molly Ringwald, and the music collection of Phil Collins’ “Sussudio”, A-ha’s “Take On Me”, and MJ’s “Bad” blasted out of a weaponized keytar. While South Park followers find Parker’s voice more amusing than the mainstream audience do, his comic timing is still perfect to portray Bratt’s delusional vanity, even when the catchphrase “I’ve been a baaaad boy!” irks our ears.

Trey Parker as Balthazar Bratt

Competent as he is, Bratt only makes way for audiences to look into the dire situation of our not-so-despicable Gru. After his failure to capture Bratt, the reformed villain turns into a disgraced agent when the new boss of his Anti-Villain League, Valerie Da Vinci (an underused Jenny Slate), takes the top position from Ramsbottom (Steve Coogan)—hey, there’s another fat joke to keep the kids from getting bored before seeing any Minions. Unemployed, Gru and Lucy find comfort in their home, which has new colorful designs by its four ladies. The Powerpuff Girls rip-offs—Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Nev Scharrel)—are always there to pink up the mood for their parents. From their collective viewpoint, we see Grucy’s flavorless relationship as a depiction of parents in the eyes of their kids. But aww—Agnes sells her toys to support Gru’s unemployment!

Margo spends some time with her new mother Lucy

The Minions, who don’t take Gru’s new career decision very well, want him to resume his villainy. After a failed attempt to persuade the embarrassed protagonist, these Weeble-shaped fusions of Homer Simpson and the Little Green Men abandon him for another master worthy of their dedication. I thought they were sent away to start the events in Minions 2, but don’t worry, Despicable Me 3 keeps jumping back to their adventure filled with lingual balderdash and Can-Can dance. In the absence of Russell Brand’s Dr. Nefarius due to an accident that pays homage to The Empire Strikes Back, the franchise scraps the focus on Gru’s journey from villain to do-gooder and explores his personal life instead. By ditching the AVL and centralizing on the family, the movie refuses to raise the low bar on the conception of agent-criminal dynamics.

One day, Gru receives a house invitation from his long-lost twin brother in Europe, and his family crosses the Atlantic to the pig-themed Freedonia (an homage to Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup). Here, they meet Dru (also by Carell), who inherited the whole land from his dad and is unknown to Gru because of their parents’ agreement. From here, the story roves through many subplots. Although they have a shared purpose for the ending, the attention to characters is thin. Subplots are neither linked naturally nor put side-by-side for reference to Gru’s main plot. That said, this story is an improvement on the second movie, which was peppered with irrelevancies.

The twins have fun before Gru is annoyed by Dru

Dru, who wants to connect with his brother and gets him into family business again, is a hit-or-miss character. Carell displayed flexibility in shifting between grouchiness and delight while the writer duo Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio maneuvered through tropes about twins. The white-clothed blonde is opposite to Gru and gives the first impression of a quasi-antagonist stealing the love of Gru’s family. But their brotherhood quickly assures us that kind of drama is unlikely. The bonding of brothers turns over one trope on its head by not using any cliché same-DNA twist. Instead, Gru and Dru once try to switch place to fool the others, only to meet their sympathetic face-palming. In this situation, the sweet taste of villainy leads to their fraternal collaboration, which really sells a fun heist sequence. But even high jinks can’t cover Gru’s feelings about Dru’s vexing incompetence.

They can handle this brotherly beef, but this half-baked character arc also carries a handful of side quests. The puppy-eyed, overenthusiastic Agnes, after finding her own “unicorn”, teaches Gru an invaluable lesson about expectation. Edith continues to skirt the plot by doing nothing (except for being the dismissed voice of reason in Agnes’ innocent, futile endeavor). Margo has problems with her mature appeal, and though the writer toned this matter down compared to the hormone-driven romance, she still faces a marriage proposal from a lovestruck local boy. On the other side of adulthood, Lucy is still a competent woman, at least professionally. The problem is she has troubles being a functional mother for the girls, even when the criteria weren’t set high by Miss Hattie.

Agnes has the most important subplot

The main conflict is about Bratt living in the fleeting “glory” of his past, and as he carries out an avenging scheme, Gru rebounds by intervening to stop him once for all. Their personal motivations unwieldily build to a fast-paced climax full of variegated flying objects. Here and there, the story inserts setups for a believable revelation, but those details barely add up to a twist worthy of speculation. Also, they missed a chance to pit the army of Bratt Pack against Gru’s Minions, which would cause a cheerful mayhem of slapsticks.

Despicable Me 3 is less Minion-centric, but rest assured they will find a way back to Gru. Co-directors Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda went overboard by connecting to another Illumination property—the Minions perform the “Modern Major-General Song” musical in Busby Berkeley style). They even go to jail, where their expressiveness in body humor plays out fairly well. Using these babbling creatures, the franchise continues to get away with willy-nilly events and tons of adult comedy (boobs, loser, and partial nudity). Despicable Me movies always walk the squiggly line between stealing classic moments (because its audience are relatively young) and paying homage to them—aside from fart jokes and butt jokes.

The real reason kids go to this movie

As Despicable Me 3 skims the foam on the surface of relationships, the examination of good and evil at the heart of the story loses its charm. Although they put visible efforts into the plot to surpass the unbearable second movie, the last one of this trilogy only steps up its core strengths—visual comedy and cornball lessons about family—and suffers from diminishing returns of something not even that innovative from the get-go.