There comes a point in time in every long-standing family franchise where those behind the scenes decide if they simply want to cash in on the property, or if they’re going to give it their all with a story worth telling. Unfortunately, many times these franchises end up feeling worn out early on, and the quality declines rapidly in favor or cheap laughs over story. Illumination Entertainment’s newest film, Despicable Me 3, the fourth film in the Despicable Me franchise, is the newest poster child for the trend mentioned above. The spark of imagination, character moments, and charm is all gone in this newest entry, instead becoming an overly vapid affair that’s more interested in cheap jokes over story, while also promoting the Illumination brand in many not so subtle ways.
Despicable Me 3 finds Gru (Steve Carrell), with his new wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig), working at the Anti-Villain League, trying to stop the world’s most villains. With Gru having turned a new leaf and taking care of a family, everything seems right with the world. But fate has other plans, and when a former child star turned villain, Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), emerges from the shadows, Gru’s world is turned upside down. Gru loses his job, only to discover that he has a long-lost twin brother, Dru (Steve Carrell in a dual role), who wants Gru to join the family business: villainy! Will Dru convince Gru to give up his life of family and love for a return to villainy? Will the Minions make it out of prison? Honestly, does anyone really care anymore?
That last part may sound a bit catty, but it’s an unfortunate question that must be asked concerning the matter at hand. While the first Despicable Me film offered great family entertainment and fun, Despicable Me 3 feels like a cheap imitation. There’s a lot of issues with the film, but one of the biggest is that the film seems to be overstuffed with storylines just for the sake of jokes, not an actual progression of character or story. From the minions going on strike, only to end up in prison, to Gru finding out about his long-lost brother, with Lucy trying to be a good mother, Agnes searching for a real a unicorn, and Margot getting engaged to some boy, there’s just no time for it all to work. Everything feels half-baked, giving the movie a strangely unfocused feel, as it meanders from scene to scene. There’s just very little connective tissue holding the film together because the movie is more interested in trying to make the audience laugh. The only problem is, if the audience isn’t invested, they won’t want to laugh, and instead they’ll be bored by the antics at hand.
Not only is the film overstuffed, but it’s also a film with an identity crisis. It’s hard to imagine a film like this being so scattershot in who it’s trying to entertain, that it rarely lands with any of the targeted demographics. But the reality is exactly that in this situation. The film’s main villain, Balthazar Bratt is a child star of the 1980s, whose show was cancelled, and now he wants to destroy Hollywood for it. His character has never left the 1980s, and so most of his gags center around things that this film’s target audience, children, won’t understand. It’s a weird choice that doesn’t make sense, which makes it all the more baffling that the film is so childish at times, it’ll leave adults groaning. There’s no real balance in the humor, so it’s wildly throwing things at the wall, hoping it’ll stick, which makes the experience feel overwhelming and frustrating.
It’s unfortunate that Despicable Me 3 goes for such cheap thrills instead of focusing on being a better film. But that’s not the film’s worst offense. Honestly, the worst thing in the film may be Illumination Entertainment’s blatant promotion of their own films within. A joke early on in the film has the Minions in a Sing competition show, a call back to their previous film, Sing!. The scene is fine, but it’s honestly so in your face, it’s hard to get past it. Not only that though, Margot spends most of the film wearing a Grinch t-shirt, which is Illumination blatantly promoting their next film, The Grinch, before it hits theaters next year. Easter eggs in films are one thing, it’s something Pixar does frequently in their films, but it’s another when the studio crosses the line into blatant self-advertisement. It may have been less obvious had the movie been better, but because it’s not, the bigger issues like this become increasingly apparent.
Despicable Me 3 is not a good movie. Not only is it not good, it feels like a boring retread of much better films. Family films do not need to be overly simplified cartoons that are made just to pass the time and free up parents from watching their kids for a few hours, but it honestly doesn’t feel like Illumination Entertainment has figured that out yet. There’s something to be said about a family films made for the whole family, and how increasingly rare they’ve become. It’s unfortunate that the Despicable Me franchise has wandered straight into throwing things at the wall just for cheap laughs, jettisoning story and character for the next joke that may not land. It would be great if one of these animated franchises could work hard to stay high quality, but when these movies make the amount of money they continue to do, it’s unfortunate that the lesson learned is do more of the same, not push to do new things. This is a truly disappointing turn of events for this series, and families deserve much better entertainment than this film is offering them.