On the surface, the “Despicable Me” cartoons appear to be sendups of the James Bond franchise, but beneath that slick, spoofy exterior, they’re really marshmallow-centered affirmations of good old-fashioned family values. In the original, reformed super-villain Gru (Steve Carell) agrees to reprioritize his life around his three newly adopted daughters. Then, in the sequel, Gru met soul mate Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig) and got hitched. And now, in what might have been titled “Predictable Me 3,” Gru discovers his long-lost twin brother, Dru, giving the superficially surly character even more reasons for group hugs.
The fact that Gru has lost his job with the Anti-Villain League and that Dru desperately wants to get into the villainy racket is mostly just incidental in a series that’s starting to feel less like 007 and more like “The Brady Bunch” with every outing. And lest you assume that “Despicable Me 3” somehow marks the poignant finale of a predetermined trilogy (one that has already earned more than $1.5 billion worldwide, not counting merchandising or the “Minions” movie’s additional billion), think again: The movie wraps in the most open-ended way possible, paving the way for a seemingly infinite number of sequels — which could actually be the sense in which this series most resembles the Bond movies.
But here’s a word of advice for the talented folks at Illumination that might have come in handy before they undertook this outing: As happened with “Shrek” and various other cartoon franchises before it, Gru’s ensemble is starting to feel a bit bloated, and before moving forward, the studio might want to shed a few characters, starting — blasphemy of blasphemies! — with the Minions, who now officially have Nothing To Do. (Nota bene: Whether out of wisdom or contract considerations, Russell Brand’s Dr. Nefario spends the movie frozen in carbonite, which is a step in the right direction.)
In theory, the Minions are the reason these movies make millions, and it should tell you something that the little yellow guys succeed in delivering two fart jokes before the Illumination logo has even cleared the screen. They’re the irreverent comic relief in a series that’s robustly funny in its own right. And yet, like the acorn-obsessed Scrat in the “Ice Age” movies, the Minions’ scenes have broken off from the main storyline, their antics now unfolding as little added-value vignettes in parallel to the plot at hand.
Meanwhile, the central narrative concerns Gru’s discovery of Dru (both voiced by Carell, though the latter’s accent assumes an even weirder, Tommy Wiseau-like lilt). It should be noted that the surprise-twin thing is the kind of device that surely makes even soap-opera writers blush — but then, that’s half the joke in a franchise that’s self-aware enough to realize that it’s taking tired clichés and turning them upside-down and inside-out. Where the first “Despicable Me” movie seemed to be winking at the audience in open acknowledgement of what it was stealing from other sources, this third installment is all but rolling its eyes at us (as in a lame bit where Gru and Dru pretend to be one another, à la “Parent Trap,” knowing full well that they’re the only ones who find it funny).
Along the same lines, the running gag about the movie’s new villain — a disgruntled former child star named Balthazar Bratt (voiced by “South Park” co-creator Trey Parker) — centers on how out-of-touch he is with the audience. A relic of the ’80s, when everyone knew him from a show called “Evil Bratt,” Balthazar wears shoulder pads and pump sneakers, tossing bubble-gum bombs and break-dancing his way through heists. But when he runs the tape of an old episode for ideas, the joke is meant to be how hopelessly corny it all was, right down to his tired “I’ve been a bad boy!” tagline.
This ever-so-slight change in tone may be too discreet for “Despicable Me” fans to pick up on, but upon closer inspection, it represents a dangerous shift toward ironic detachment. While these movies are allowed to be as silly as they like, what made them so delightful was the fact the filmmakers took the underlying sentiment seriously, treating even those warm-fuzzy family moments with sincerity. Here, we’re allowed to “Awwww” when littlest-daughter Agnes tells step-mother Lucy, “I love you, Mom,” but when Gru makes the same admission to his brother, it’s the Minions who “Awwww,” throwing up a comedic buffer of sorts. We haven’t gotten there yet, but the instant these movies stop caring about their characters, we’ll stop caring as well.
For the moment, both the filmmakers and audience remain invested, which allows writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (who’ve been with the series since the beginning) to splinter the story into half a dozen strands. While Balthazar manages to steal the world’s largest diamond — wearing a fat suit modeled after France’s biggest movie star, in a joke clearly concocted by the movie’s Paris-based Mac Guff team — Gru and Lucy set out to thwart him and earn back the respect of new boss Valerie Da Vinci (Jenny Slate). While Gru and Dru make up for lost time, Lucy attempts to bond with the three little girls, who each have subplots of their own, the funniest being Agnes’ obsession with locating a real, live unicorn.
And then there are the Minions, who have grown disgruntled with all of Gru’s do-goodery. Following the lead of Mel (their Braveheart?), they agree to go on strike, making it clear they miss the days when they assisted in evil heists. What the Minions really want is another villain to serve, which means the movie has to keep cutting back to them as they seek out mischief en masse — whether crashing a “Sing”-style talent competition or making trouble in prison.
Yes, “Despicable Me 3” is unwieldy, but it mostly works, as co-directors Pierre Coffin (who also voices the Minions) and Kyle Balda never lose sight of the film’s emotional center, packing the rest with as much humor as they can manage. The jokes comes so fast and furious, the movie can hardly find room for Heitor Pereira’s funky score, and though Pharrell Williams has contributed five new songs to sell soundtracks (including the sweet “There’s Something Special”), the movie hardly needs them. While the movie ends with an enticing teaser for “Spy vs. Spy”-like action to come (for those who remember Mad magazine’s constantly feuding rivals), its biggest laughs come from the retro dance-fights between Gru and Evil Bratt — and for that, it’s hard to beat Madonna’s “Into the Groove.”