It’s clear from the opening minutes of “Despicable Me 3” that the popular Illumination Entertainment franchise has lost the thread on what makes the series so appealing to its target audience (you know, kids). The latest film in the expanding canon of “Despicable Me” features — which has grown to include a Minion-centric spinoff, plus more to come — gamely opens with a fart-laden studio logo before introducing the series’ newest villain, a cast-off has-been television star literally named Evil Bratt. Voiced by Trey Parker, the balding Bratt is a weirdo riff on classic ’80s TV characters like Small Wonder and Punky Brewster, complete with a sassy robot friend and a keytar he uses to play such jams as “Sussudio” and “Take on Me,” a role entirely dependent on the audience’s knowledge of the kind of roles he’s skewering. He seems unlikely to appeal to — or amuse — the younger set, but at least he’s got a little flair, something the rest of the film is severely lacking.
Now firmly settled into his dual roles as good-guy secret agent and family man, former baddie Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) has been battling Bratt for ages by the time the Rubik’s Cube-loving villain hatches a plan to steal the world’s biggest diamond, an evil deed he intends to complete by way of some evil bubblegum (yes) and an even worse attitude (he’s still clinging to his TV-issued catchphrase “I’ve been a baaaad boy!”). The throwback character is amusing at first blush, but he soon feels as if he’s been plucked from another movie and stuffed inside this one — a common problem throughout the rest of “Despicable Me 3.”
Bratt is mad because his decades-old television series, which was about him being a kid super-villain, was cancelled when he unexpectedly entered puberty. With no other skill set to his name, he’s bent on two things: being a real villain and taking down the entertainment industry that shunned him. (You know how much children love dismantling capitalism.) The diamond is part of that convoluted plan, and after outsmarting Gru and his wife, fellow agent Lucy (voiced by Kristen Wiig) yet again, Bratt makes off with the giant gem.
Gru’s journey from bad villain to inept agent has framed up the series so far, but the third “Despicable Me” film still finds him struggling to succeed, even when supported by Lucy, who is twice the agent he’ll ever be. Gru’s issues haven’t changed over the course of three films, and “Despicable Me 3” finds no new emotion or insight in the recycled plotline, one whose charms wore off during the first film and have yet to bounce back.
When the pair’s agency gets a new head — voiced by Jenny Slate in a thankless role that makes her amusing turn in the animated “The Secret Life of Pets” all the more enviable — who’s displeased with their shoddy work, the pair are unceremoniously fired. While Gru’s Minions are eager for him to get back into villainy, Gru is dedicated to Lucy and their three cute kids (still cute) and refuses to return to his more nefarious nature. The Minions all but riot, leaving Gru to strike out on their own (somehow, not the premise of their spinoff, but close enough). Eventually, they’ll end up on a televised singing competition, and then in prison, thanks to a baffling subplot that seems unable and unwilling to capitalize on the breakout appeal of the series’ biggest (and also smallest) stars.
Heartbroken and adrift, Gru gets some good news in the form of very, very bad news — in a twisted take on the ol’ “Parent Trap” formula, he actually has a twin brother on the other side of the world, who is eager to see him now that their dad (who Gru already thought was dead, as his mother told him he “died of disappointment” when Gru was born; again, this is a film for kids) has passed away. With nothing left to lose, Gru and his family head off to fictional Freedonia (a blunt nod to “Duck Soup”) to meet the peppy Dru (also Carell) and learn more about their despicable family. That’s just the first twenty minutes or so, as “Despicable Me 3” continues to layer on plot point after plot point, each more disjointed and out of place than the last.
Gru, already unhinged by the loss of the Minions and worried about what will become of his nascent career as a good guy, is soon treated to a massive surprise: His father was a villain too, a big one, and Dru is hoping that his newly found twin will get back into the family business and teach him some tricks along the way. Cue the high jinks!
While Gru and Dru dabble in villainy (again: same issues as ever), helpfully aided by the convenient re-appearance of Bratt — who appears to be crafted of equal parts exposition and really, really cheap ’80s jokes — Lucy and the girls stumble around Freedonia and make plenty of their own messes. “Despicable Me 3” is chock-a-block with short-shrift subplots, from Lucy’s struggle with motherhood to a bizarre bit that sees eldest daughter Margo (voiced by Miranda Cosgrove) nearly married off to a local boy to unicorn-obsessed Agnes (voiced by Dev Scharrel) heading off into the forest to find her very own magical creature, and the pacing and tone suffers in the process. The whiz-bang joy of the first film is wholly absent, and “Despicable Me 3” limps along for nearly an hour before finding its footing (and, also, maybe an actual unicorn).
“Despicable Me 3” eventually lands on its principal plot well into its final act, finally pushing together all of the film’s disparate pieces and fractured characters in a messy, gum-covered final fight scene that’s genuinely amusing and creative. The film offers up real peril for both Gru and his girls (to say nothing of Hollywood, which is about to pay mightily for canceling a show that looked bad to begin with), capped off with the kind of wit and vigor that made the first film entertaining enough to spawn an entire new franchise. It’s too little, way too late.
If “Despicable Me” wants to avoid the pitfalls (and pratfalls) of its latest bad guy’s own misbegotten entertainment career, the series is going to have to dig much deeper than bad jokes about Michael Jackson’s discography and an off-key subplot involving teen marriages dictated by actual cheese. Even the Minions deserve better than this.
“Despicable Me 3” opens on Friday, June 30.