Despicable Me 3 is a tired, stale, scattershot mess of a film that I’d be more forgiving of if, like the other entries in this series, it were actually funny.
As Illumination continue their relentless ascendency to officially being one of the biggest names in Feature Animation in the world today, I feel it’s important to take a step back and recognise just how goddamn quickly this has happened. It was only 7 years ago (to the day yesterday), back in the heady and altogether brighter-looking days of Summer 2010, that we were first introduced to Illumination at all. They had no prior work to their name as this specific entity, their head (Chris Meledandri) was only known beforehand for running Blue Sky Studios, everybody’s fourth/fifth favourite animation studio, and their debut feature was being made for only 8 figures instead of 9. Before it dropped, you must understand, nobody thought Despicable Me was going to be a hit. Not with Toy Story 3 still relatively fresh, not with DreamWorks Animation’s own Supervillain-Turns-Good movie coming later in the year, and especially not when there was no built-in audience or brand-loyalty to guarantee at least decent returns. Everyone expected this to do decent-but-not-great and be forgotten about before the Autumn leaves even started considering unfurling.
Instead, Despicable Me dominated, and not just the opening weekend. It finished up the second highest-grossing animated film of 2010 domestically, and Megamind ended up being the Supervillain-Turns-Good movie that was undeservedly forgotten. That’s not all without at least some reason, either; the first Despicable Me was a decent film! Very ropey narratively and having a non-Minion cast that, whilst not actively repelling to look at, weren’t exactly pleasantly-designed, either, but more than delivered in the gag department, particularly the Minions, and was overall solid enough considering that this was the collective’s first work of any kind together. DreamWorks Animation did not create Shrek right off the bat, after all, and Pixar had extensive experience working together in shorts before they tried Toy Story. There was clear potential… clear potential that was subsequently squandered remorselessly by the studio with the aggressively awful follow-ups Hop and their total bastardisation of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax.
2013’s Despicable Me 2 and 2015’s Minions spin-off both provided a lifeline for my general patience with the studio, although neither film honestly showed much improvement on the first in any significant way. Despicable Me 2 introduced us to the Steve Coogan-voiced Silas Ramsbottom, somehow one of the ugliest human character designs I have ever seen in a major studio animated feature – he returns very briefly in Despicable Me 3, and it turns out I had forgotten just how actively unappealing he is to watch, sweet Christ, how can professional animators be proud of this thing – whilst Minions frequently came off as actively contemptuous of the whole concept of an emotional core in silly kids cartoons. But, both films were funny. In fact, let me break away from the past tense for the moment: these films are still funny! I re-watched Despicable Me 2 on telly last Christmas and was genuinely surprised by just how loud and how frequently I was laughing as a result of it, whilst I ended up seeing Minions twice when it was in the cinemas and may have even seen it a few more times had I the time that Summer.
In fact, for all the stick I gave Illumination at the time of Minions’ release, it turns out that there is something that differentiates the Despicable Me series from everything else on the market: its anarchic and refreshingly amoral sense of humour. These films may have no interest in being anything other than joke-fests, but at least they’re joke-fests with a different sense of humour than your also-rans. Go back and look at just how much tangible fun Minions is for the people who make it – a film that gets to go all-in on every ridiculous, crazed, Golden Age comic book villain trope and scheme that its writers, animators, whomever can think of, without having to worry about shoehorning in some kind of moral or fashioning a half-decent story to contain them.
Illumination come alive when making Despicable Me films. That relentless raw enthusiasm is what helps these films to paper over their many, many faults, because it enables them to tap into their strengths, but it’s also why they have yet to make anything that even approaches the level of competent outside of this franchise. The Secret Life of Pets was really funny, I still freely admit that, but each additional watch has only made its complete, total, catastrophic failure as anything other than a home for gags – gags that lack anything in the way of a unique identity from anything else in the game, for the record – ever more apparent; it is legitimately baffling that a major release from one of the biggest animation studios going fumbles the ball on basic narrative and structure as hard as Pets did. Sing, meanwhile, actively drew focus towards all of their weakest aspects as filmmakers and storytellers, and the results were exactly as that descriptor sounds. Both films made a combined $1.5 billion worldwide.
I shouldn’t be surprised, it wasn’t until very recently that the Ice Age series stopped tickling the $900 mil worldwide border after all, but it helps make a point. I’m not saying that those involved in filmmaking at Illumination are lazy – nobody who works at a major animation studio is lazy, despite how often I like to utilise that descriptor; they simply would not be employed in that job at that studio if they were – but what I am saying is that they have no incentive to work at their flaws. I mean, why should you actively try to learn from your prior mistakes when people are stampeding over each other to fling all of the contents of their wallets at you? And at some point, that knowledge is going to seep in, soon followed by complacency, and even a work that once gave you tingles to work on will become just a routine day job of franchise management.
So, friends, if you were dying to know what a Despicable Me film without the anarchic, amoral, and inventive sense of humour that has come to define and buoy the series would look like, here is that answer. Despicable Me 3: the Shrek the Third of the 2010s.
OK, that’s not an entirely fair comparison; unlike Shrek the Third, Despicable Me 3 is actually watchable, never an irritation, and occasionally manages to squeak an actual joke off of the factory line. What it is, however, is tired. Noticeably, tangibly, infectiously tired. Where before directors Pierre Coffin & Kyle Balda and writers Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio approached their charge with palpable glee and excitement, they now lifelessly go through the motions, hoping that anybody watching will be too excited by the fact that more of the thing they once loved has appeared before them to recognise that everybody involved is officially spent for ideas.
In fact, it’s actually getting harder and harder for me to not view Despicable Me as the Shrek of the current decade, particularly with just how badly 3 proceeds to drop the ball in most departments. Like the Shrek sequels, 3 shamelessly rehashes the central conflict and character arc from the original film for this one and hopes that no-one will notice – will Gru (Steve Carrell) go back to a life of villainy, despite his family’s wishes, now that he’s been fired from his job at the Anti-Villain League for reasons that are not dwelled upon nor stand up to much scrutiny? Like the Shrek sequels, we are introduced to hereto unknown long-lost family members that end up as nothing more than arbitrary conflict-causers than actual characters – Gru’s long-lost twin brother Dru (also Carrell), whom the film bends over backwards to pull some kind of excuse out of its arse as to his existence. Like the Shrek sequels, everybody who is not the protagonist or the breakout comic relief gets saddled with go-nowhere subplots in favour of newer, far less entertaining characters – Lucy (Kristen Wiig) has now been relegated to the same fringes of the plot that Agnes (Nev Scharrel), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) occupy, with the latter 3 existing in this film to get kidnapped for the finale and basically nothing else.
And, just like the Shrek sequels, what used to be a sharp, refined sense of humour has now degenerated into lazy, overdone cliché that relies more on lowest common denominator crap than any real effort or inventiveness. Past Despicable Me movies always had at least one comedic sequence that stuck out either in inventiveness or just-plain-great-comedy some time after viewing. The first had Gru’s numerous failed attempts to break into Vector’s house, and subsequent badass stride out; 2 had Gru and Lucy’s first confrontation, Gru’s abysmal blind date, and the deliriously over-the-top introduction of El Macho; whilst Minions had the opening montage, VillainCon, the Minion tribe’s quest to London, Scarlet Overkill’s bounty… seriously, Minions really did not skimp on its gags. Go back and watch it again freed from overmarketing; that film is packed to the gills with brilliant madcap humour.
By contrast, I cannot recall to you a single comedy sequence in Despicable Me 3 that bowled me over. I got the occasional chuckle, but never anything like the consistent full-on belly laughs that this series has proven it can provide. Instead what sticks out in my memory are the full-on duds: an entire sequence dedicated to a Minion-ese version of The Major General Song, because those sorts of moments in Minions were obviously the runaway success stories. Tired French stereotype jokes for the islanders of Freedonia (where Dru resides) that surprisingly do not gain a sudden jolt of life or a pass when done by actual Frenchmen/women. And then there’s Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker of all people).
Balthazar Bratt is our villain, a failed 80s child star who has come to believe he really is the supervillain he played on his cancelled TV show, and one whose entire existence seems to have been born from somebody at Illumination catching a glimpse of 20 random minutes of an episode of VH1’s I Heart 80s retrospectives, and basing an entire character solely off of that. Do you still think references to bubblegum, Rubik’s Cubes, keytars, shoulder pads, Michael Jackson impressions, and well-overused 80s music cues are inherently hilarious? Then even you might grow immensely tired of Bratt by the 14th time he sneers out his catchphrase, “I’ve been a baaaad boy!” ostensibly a joke about forced-catchphrases in 80s kids shows but driven so far into the ground that the joke disappears and it just becomes another annoying forced catchphrase.
So since Despicable Me 3 is suffering from a severe deficiency in the laugh department, I ended up having my attention drawn once again to Illumination’s complete and total inability to competently structure a narrative. There are such a surplus of characters, both old and new, being stuck in go-nowhere plots that only serve to kill time or act as artificial plot-stallers, Dru being the worst example of this. Despite offering up at least some decent thematic potential – he’s become the super-rich and successful brother through legitimate means, but really wants to be a villain like Gru (and their father) was – Dru actually exists purely to be absolutely and totally useless, which is funny because Gru is so totally capable and that was the contrast that needed all the attention. Not to mention that, rather than actually tempting Gru back into the villain lifestyle, the caper him and Gru get involved in has the story bending over backwards to make sure Gru never once threatens to succumb to his old life, since that would run the risk of being thematically interesting, dramatically fuelled, and not involving a 47-way-plot-pile-up to get to.
Seriously, it is still baffling to me just how little Illumination seem to care about or even just plain understand the power of dramatic conflict in this, their eighth movie! During the requisite point where Gru and Dru have to have a falling out – which works about as well as Max and Duke’s requisite falling out at the same point of The Secret Life of Pets – the film shunts them back together as best buds faster than the length of the argument scene itself, and said argument is barely an argument to begin with. Early on, the Minions all revolt against Gru when he refuses to return to a life of villainy upon his AVL firing which, instead of doing anything interesting, simply leads to them leaving the film for extended periods of time, popping back up for an interlude-style vignette every now and again that, much like the Scrat sequences in latter-Ice Age movies, just aren’t as inspired or lively as they once were.
Sure, Despicable Me 3 has a villain, but Bratt, as mentioned, is not a particularly enjoyable presence, and even he ends up feeling token for much of the film’s runtime. Multiple times the film would cut back to him and I genuinely would think to myself, “Oh, yeah, he’s still here, for some reason.” And yet this film has the gall to throw potshots at Pixar – during an underwater scene, the camera holds tight on a pair of clownfish that get unceremoniously blown away once Gru and Lucy appear on-screen with their subs. Say what you want about the studio’s shaky output this decade, at least Pixar know how goddamn narratives work!
I feel that, given the increasingly venomous nature of the last few paragraphs, I should clarify that Despicable Me 3 is not terrible, although I would barely class it as “OK.” There are still some funny gags, and the giant superhero movie-style setpiece it has for a finale is honestly better than a lot of actual superhero movie finales. But the major issue, the one at the root of all of Despicable Me 3’s many individual faults besides inexperience (still somehow), is one of purpose. Simply put: what is the purpose of Despicable Me 3? One could answer, “to make you laugh through silly gags,” which has been the series’ M.O. up to now, and it’s worked enough to overshadow these films’ many near-substantial flaws. But that anarchic, amoral, and inventive sense of humour is gone here, replaced with lazy, rehashed, done-to-death staples of every hack stand-up comedian’s first notebook that land with audible, uncomfortable thuds for extended periods of time.
So, why? Why make this movie if everybody involved is clearly so very tired and bereft of ideas? Why barrel into it despite having C-grade material at best when you know full well that all that is going to do is further expose your severe weaknesses? Why make a Despicable Me film, the one work of your studio that has some semblance of unique personality, and forget to bring the personality? I mean, we all know why, and it answers to the tune of $2.681 billion pre-DM3. What’s the incentive to try when that number is staring back at you? After all, it’s never enough to just have all the money, now, is it?