Despicable Me 3

Despicable Me 3
The '80s guy uses a lot of bubble gum in his work. Not sure why.

With “Despicable Me 3,” I finally put my finger on what it is about these movies that keeps them from working. The premise, as you and your children know, is that a super-villain named Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) adopted three orphan girls, got domesticated, and left his life of crime to work for the Anti-Villain League. He’s now married to a fellow AVL agent, Lucy (Kristen Wiig), and they all live as one big happy family.

In the new one, written by franchise creators Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio and directed by Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin, Gru learns he has a long-lost twin brother named Dru (also voiced by Carell) who is wealthy, cheerful, and has lustrous blond hair. (That’s pretty much all we ever learn about Dru’s personality.) Dru is disappointed to find that Gru has gone straight, as he wants to continue the family legacy of villainy. This eventually provides the conflict between them.

But this whole premise, where Gru is a “villain” who supposedly loves evil but resists it now, and who even at his peak was only a thief who never hurt anyone, and where Dru wants to be evil despite being a good person with no unkind impulses — all of this is a difficult reality to maintain. I can only buy it for a few minutes at a time before the contradictions overwhelm me. Their actions consistently belie their professed beliefs! Of course, you couldn’t make a kids’ cartoon about someone who’s truly evil. And yet now they’ve tried, counting the “Minions” spinoff, four times.

Despicable Us:

“Despicable Me” (2010) C
“Despicable Me 2” (2013) C-
“Minions” (2015)
“Despicable Me 3” (2017) C

It’s a shame, because there are some solid laughs scattered throughout this gentle family sitcom. The main plot concerns a villain named Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), an ’80s child actor who turned rotten when his show was canceled and now perpetrates ’80s-flavored crimes accompanied by cheesy catchphrases. Bratt’s goofy-sinister antics are funny, as is much of the film’s slapstick humor. There’s a highly enjoyable scene where Gru and Dru, having spent the day getting to know each other and bonding as brothers, snickeringly impersonate one another for Lucy and the girls.

Everything else is weakly amiable and perfunctorily pleasant, like an old episode of “Full House” (OK, it’s not that dumb). Gru’s family travels to the kooky foreign nation of Freedonia to meet Dru, and everybody gets a B-story. The littlest girl wants to find a unicorn; the middle girl helps her; the oldest girl misunderstands local customs and gets betrothed to a local boy; Lucy struggles with being a stepmother and learning to say “no.” There is much personal growth and hugging.

Meanwhile, here is what happens to the Minions in this movie. They leave Gru because he refuses to be evil, walk to Hollywood (I don’t know why), wander onto a live TV show, get arrested for it, go to prison (I guess just because of the TV thing, though maybe their centuries of war crimes were factored in), and escape from prison. The end. See you at “Minions 2”!

I know everyone is more amused by this franchise than I am, and I’m OK with that. This chapter, at least, isn’t irritating. So I guess that’s a step forward.

C (1 hr., 30 min.; PG, cartoon violence.)