An oddball mixture of lowbrow slapstick, out-sized action, cloying cutesiness, and a light sprinkling of macabre humor, the Despicable Me series has always taken a kitchen-sink approach to storytelling. While this more-is-more style of filmmaking has ensured that previous entries in the franchise are rarely dull, the films have also demonstrated a frustrating lack of follow-through on their ideas. The first entry never seemed quite sure of whether it wanted to be a dark comedy in the style of Charles Addams or a goofy, action-packed lark, while the second film was an unfocused attempt to split the difference between spy caper and domestic drama.
Minions, which told the origin story of the titular yellow creatures, partially resolved this problem not by correcting for it, but embracing it, turning the scatterbrained discursiveness of the series into the film’s central defining feature and at times achieving the manic energy of classic Looney Tunes. Now, Despicable Me 3 maintains the same sense of anarchic glee established by the prequel while linking it to the character relationships established by the first two films. In so doing, the filmmakers have created the best entry in the series yet—a madcap stream-of-consciousness adventure that nevertheless feels slightly more substantial than the pure sugar rush of Minions.
The plot here centers on supervillain turned good guy Gru (Steve Carell) discovering that he has a long-lost twin brother, Dru (also voiced by Carell), who lives in the far-off land of Freedonia. (Note the apt allusion to the Marx Brothers’s anarchic classic Duck Soup.) After losing his job with the Anti-Villain League and being abandoned by his Minions (all voiced by Pierre Coffin), Gru sets off for Freedonia with his wife, Lucy (Kristen Wiig), and adopted daughters, Margo, Edith, and Agnes (Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, and Nev Scharrel, respectively), to meet the brother he never knew.
Flitting from one loopy set piece to the next, the filmmakers free themselves to follow their silliest whims, such as an 1980s-obsessed supervillain (Trey Parker) who lives in a giant Rubik’s Cube, a giant action figure who shoots blobs of bubble gum at Los Angeles, and the Minions performing an impromptu rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” from The Pirates of Penzance. If all this wackiness is only occasionally laugh-out-loud funny—the ’80s references feel particularly played out—it’s nonetheless executed with good-natured breeziness.
The comically grotesque character designs, redolent of Sylvain Chomet’s similarly extravagant figurations, remain a highlight of the series, as does the go-for-broke voice acting of the celebrity cast, particularly Carell’s dual characterizations, which demonstrate a remarkable comedic range. The giddy, luxuriously coifed Dru provides a perfect foil for the sour, bald Gru, and Carell manages to develop separate voices that are sufficiently similar to match the mirror-image designs of the characters but distinct enough to indicate their completely different worldviews and life experiences.
Like past entries in the series, the latest film still suffers from structural problems, wasting Lucy in a make-work subplot about her bumbling attempts to ingratiate herself with Gru’s daughters, though even this narrative strand involves oddball touches like an elaborate cheese festival. The filmmakers employ the Minions judiciously, in short bursts that prevent them from wearing out their welcome (a real possibility given the babbling little buggers’ pop-culture ubiquity), but the film continues the series’s unfortunate habit of leaning on Agnes, the youngest of the daughters, for a burst of uber-cutesiness that leaves a sickly sweet taste in the mouth.
While Despicable Me 3 may be hampered by the desire on the part of directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin and screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio to indulge in a little bit of everything, from nutso action to heartstring-tugging pathos, the film still goes the farthest in developing a unique voice for the series—one of pure comic anarchy. Considering that the cliffhanger ending all but ensures that there will be a Despicable Me 4, here’s hoping the franchise continues to push its zany impulses to the limits of common sense.