"Despicable Me 3" Attempts To Get Franchise Back On Track

“Despicable Me” landed in July of 2010, leading with the taste of a left-field animated treat, but reality swiftly set in: This was the start of billion-dollar franchise. Universal shrewdly bet on in-house star Steve Carell (“The Office”) to be the Mike Myers to their “Shrek,” and he’s brought home the bacon to the tune of $3 billion in box office receipts to date. (This is not to mention the ensuing merchandising and theme park ride bonanza.) The movies themselves, however – “Despicable Me 2” and spin-off “Minions” – have been little more than feature length ads, all but ignoring the needs of moviegoers over the age of seven. With the heart of the first film MIA, it’s been left to bright colors to cover over some utterly empty storytelling.

“Despicable Me 3” is the best in the series since the original. Faint praise, but welcome news all the same.

Carell’s supervillain-turned-reluctant-superhero Gru is back after ceding the spotlight in “Minions,” happily scooting the little yellow pill-shaped guys back to the background. (A little of the Minions goes a long way.) An older, wiser Gru finds himself up against a familiar kind of foe – a malicious wunderkind – only this time the wunderkind has graduated to manchild. Trey Parker, co-commander of Comedy Central’s very long-running “South Park,” voices Balthazar Bratt, a one-time child star, now an 80s-obsessed, mustachioed monster of a man. The character is a slam dunk.

Parker, one of the most experienced voice acting artists in the world on volume alone, is a joy to listen to. Although Bratt is underwritten, the character commands the screen with ease, a welcome course correction from the uninteresting bad guys that dotted “Despicable Me 2.” More importantly, Bratt comes with plenty of amusing pop culture nods for moviegoers born last century.

Carell and Parker make for a fascinating one-two punch, bobbing and weaving with their distinct but compatible comedic styles. Although their characters never quite share a meaningful moment, their energy is enough to shoulder a 90-minute film. If only the story was as engaging.

The idea of introducing a previously unmentioned twin brother for Gru is conceptually sound (the blonde-haired Dru is also voiced by Carell) but ends up a tragically missed opportunity. Gru and Dru, although separated since birth, are essentially the same character – lovably awkward, stuck uncomfortably between lives of supervillainy and superheroism – meaning Dru fails badly as a foil for his more famous twin brother. The only real difference is Gru’s newfound wife, Lucy (Kristen Wiig), and three daughters, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Nev Scharrel), while Dru lives a life of solitary.

Beyond an obvious setup for “Despicable Me 4,” none of this is enough to make Dru’s presence worth the trouble.

The picture’s visuals are as infectious as ever, though, and in concert with two lovely, lively lead voice performances, “Despicable Me 3” threatens to recapture that old magic. Directors Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda won’t win the franchise any new fans here, but it should be enough to keep the old ones firmly on board. For now.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: June 30, 2017
Studio: Universal Pictures, Illumination Entertainment
Directors: Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda
Screenwriters: Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio
Starring: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Trey Parker, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Nev Scharrel, Steve Coogan, Jenny Slate
MPAA Rating: PG (for action and rude humor)