Even the title seems off.
If we needed this third film about a reformed supervillain named Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), his ever-expanding family, his endlessly merchandisable Minions and his increasingly tiresome Manichaean struggle, it really should have been called “Despicable We.” After all, the new movie’s main plot point is the reunion of Gru with Dru (also Carell), the identical twin brother he never knew he had — a lame brand-extending contrivance that comes straight out of “The Parent Trap.”
You might describe “Despicable Me 3” as a parent trap, too, though probably not the kind that the hard-working people at Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment had in mind. Don’t get me wrong: Parents of young kids tend to develop a high tolerance for the mass-produced mediocrity that typically passes for children’s entertainment and will happily endure a lot of it in exchange for 90 minutes’ worth of (relative) peace and quiet.
But “Despicable Me 3,” written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, is close to unendurable. Under the pretext of offering fun for the whole family, the movie winds up doing almost precisely the opposite; its attempts at grown-up sophistication and cheeky, knowing humor are clueless and hectoring enough to leave any adult in the audience wishing they’d been straight-up ignored.
Most of the pain arrives courtesy of new uber-baddie Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), the former child star of a long-forgotten ’80s TV show whose memory he now seeks to avenge. To that end, he wears a hideous mullet (sorry if I’m being redundant) and mile-high shoulder pads, and his every appearance summons forth a blast of popular music from that much-derided decade. Michael Jackson’s “Bad” is unsurprisingly high on the playlist as are similarly obvious candidates like “Take My Breath Away” and “Take on Me.”
By the time the movie tosses in a 10-second excerpt from “99 Luftballons,” you might find yourself less amused than enraged. Not because the songs aren’t fun, but because even their wan nostalgia value feels cheapened and diminished by directors Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda, who treat every element on their broad, busy canvas with the same undiscriminating junkyard sensibility that has become synonymous with the Illumination Entertainment brand (see also “The Secret Life of Pets” and “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax.” If you must).
The plot is set in motion when Bratt uses bubble-gum bombs and a weaponized keytar to steal an enormous diamond. Failing to capture their new nemesis, Gru and his new wife, Lucy (Kristen Wiig), are stripped of their crime-fighting credentials by the Anti-Villain League, which has come under tough new management (Jenny Slate, briefly heard). But the stresses of unemployment are temporarily put on hold when Gru learns from his estranged mother (Julie Andrews) that he has a twin brother, Dru, from whom he was separated at birth.
Along with Lucy and his three adopted daughters — the mature Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), the mischievous Edith (Dana Gaier) and the adorable, unicorn-crazed Agnes (Nev Scharrel) — Gru jets off to the cheese-loving island nation of Freedonia (spare a thought for the Marx Brothers), where Dru dwells in baronial splendor and oversees a thriving pig farm. Gru is initially jealous of Dru, who has the same beaky nose and Slavic-adjacent accent, but sports a Fabio-like mop of hair in lieu of a bald pate.
The jealousy is misplaced. Although he’s obsessed with following in his brother’s once-villainous footsteps, Dru basically turns out to be a stupider, whinier version of Gru, testing the audience’s patience and the upper limits of Carell’s vocal register in equal measure. The movie extracts some wit from the image of the brothers in their black and white suits, a yin-and-yang flourish that brings “Spy vs. Spy” to the mind, but that kind of quiet deftness is otherwise beyond this movie’s abilities. (If you didn’t notice, for example, that Dru’s ceiling is painted to resemble the Sistine Chapel but with pigs, rest assured that someone will pipe up, “It’s like the Sistine Chapel but with pigs!”)
Some movies are so haphazard that they seem to have been created by throwing stuff at a wall and using whatever sticks. The “Despicable Me” films represent an even more singular achievement: They seem to have been cobbled together from the things that don’t stick. Far from achieving the kind of inspired comic lunacy that the better Pixar and DreamWorks titles sometimes manage, “Despicable Me 3” seems deliberate in its disjointedness, its sloppiness willfully achieved.
And also, somehow, utterly formulaic. In addition to the blah spectacle of Gru and Dru plowing through the streets in a massive gadget-laden vehicle or launching a secret raid on Bratt’s hideaway, we will be treated to the sort of remedial parenting lessons that bring old “Full House” reruns to mind. The most insulting of these is leveled at Lucy, whose first experience as a stepmother involves sorting out some boy trouble with Margo and, of course, keeping a safe distance from the action while the men go off and play.
I realize I’ve barely mentioned the Minions, which is fitting given that they seem more or less like an afterthought. After going from scene-stealing sideshow to main attraction in their 2015 stand-alone feature (also directed by Coffin and Balda), perhaps these chattering overgrown corn kernels felt the need for some downtime.
Tired of Gru’s identity crisis and craving the comforts of old-fashioned villainy, the Minions resign in protest and spend much of the movie off by themselves, utterly oblivious to their former master and his latest round of imbecilic misadventures.
You may miss them a bit, but you’ll envy them more.
‘Despicable Me 3’
Rating: PG, for action and rude humor
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: In general release