Illumination Entertainment has already established itself as one of the most successful animation companies working today despite the overwhelming laziness of their movies. Most of their films boil down to “Is this cute enough to impress a child?” They don’t tell good stories, they don’t come up with good characters, and their business model is basically “For parents that want to distract their children for 90 minutes.” And by that metric, Despicable Me 3 is a success. The kids who were at my screening howled with laughter when Gru (Steve Carell) fell off a ladder or the minions smiled and sang gibberish. But if Despicable Me 3 is a family film, don’t families deserve better than something only the young children will unquestionably devour?
Within the span of its 90-minute runtime, Despicable Me 3 chases down four plotlines. The A-plot is that Gru and Lucy (Kristen Wiig) have been expelled from the Anti Villain League for failing to capture the notorious, 80s-themed villain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker). Then Gru discovers he has a twin brother, Dru (also Carell), who invites Gru, Lucy, and Gru’s daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Nev Scharrel) to visit his wealthy estate. From there, the plot fractures as Lucy tries to be a good step-mom to the girls, Agnes tries to find a real unicorn, and Gru and Dru try to steal back the world’s biggest diamond from Bratt. Meanwhile, the minions, upset that Gru has given up a life of villainy, leave on their own subplot that puts them in various misadventures. These plots only loosely connect in any way, and it feels like the filmmakers were trying to find a way to keep all the characters occupied rather than giving them anything interesting to do.
The many plots of Despicable Me 3 feel like they could barely sustain a short film let alone an entire feature, especially when they don’t really tie together. I could see a short film where Agnes tries to hunt a unicorn or the minions try to escape from prison, but in Despicable Me 3, they all just kind of sit next to each other, rarely interacting and lacking any sort of rewarding payoff. It’s a movie that just happens with no investment in anything that’s taking place or how the characters interact.
Take Dru and Gru for instance. This would have been a great opportunity to give Gru a playful foil, but the characters are too similar. Dru is slightly more lighthearted and less skilled at villainy, but there’s nothing distinctive about his personality. The movie is caught between trying to create kinship between the two brothers and trying to play them off each other, and it’s bad at doing both. Oddly, it’s only during the end credits where we get a sense of a better movie where Dru and Gru would be pitted against each other in a playful, Spy vs. Spy-like duel. Instead, the film includes a scene where Dru falls and his face lands in Gru’s butt. The kids in the audience loved it.
By the metric of “Will this keep young children entertained?” Despicable Me 3 clears an incredibly low bar. But we know that family films can do so much better. We know that good family films entertain children and adults alike, and if you’re forsaking everyone but the easiest target, then you might as well stay home and pop on Netflix to distract your kids. What’s frustrating about Despicable Me 3 is that all of the elements are in place to do something fun and unique, but no one is making the effort. The filmmakers cram in a bunch of plotlines, feature a lot of slapstick, and call it a day.
In a better world, Illumination is rewarded for making movies that are good rather than movies that are easy. It’s easy to get a laugh when the minions sing and dance, and it’s easy to get an “Awww” when a small girl screams about a fluffy unicorn. But making a movie that actually tries to tie those plotlines together or build interesting characters doesn’t mean you’ll lose the kids who love watching minions speak gibberish. It just means you’ll be making a movie that isn’t a total chore for everyone above the age of six.