So, Despicable Me 3, then. Why not, I guess. It was almost a given that this was going to be an improvement over the last film in the Despicaverse, 2015's utterly stagnant Minions. And it turns out to be at least a fractional improvement over 2013's Despicable Me 2, as well, for the same reason: less emphasis on the minions, and more on the actual characters who feel actual feelings. Not much more, necessarily. While the first Despicable Me remains at least slightly charming, thanks to its straightforward version of a well-worn story of a family being formed out of isolated loners, Despicable Me 3 has a much more half-assed approach to the same basic notion. But half an ass is better than none.

The film has three main plot strands. In one, supervillain-turned-secret agent Gru (Steve Carell) is fired right before he learns that he's had an identical twin brother all this time, named Dru, who looks and sounds identical, except for a luxurious crop of blond hair. Dru, a hapless failure compared to their supervillain father, manages to seduce Gru back into a life of crime-ish-ness, as they team up to steal back a huge diamond that was already stolen by yet another supervillain, '80s child star gone bad Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker). In a second, Gru's new wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) tries to find her footing around his three adopted daughters, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Nev Scharrel). In the third, the minions, who've staged a walk-out in annoyance that Gru just won't go back to being a proper bad guy, end up in prison. They sadly do not remain there.

The three plotlines intersect, but they really don't talk to each other; it's more like a mid-series episode of a routine sitcom, clumsily tossing storylines to all of the leads with no real concern that they need to be stitched together in a compelling way. The aesthetic detachment is palpable. I can't what say drives Pierre Coffin, co-director and what amounts to the keeper of the Despicable Me flame; if he has some hot-blooded passion for this utterly mediocre material like John Lasseter has for the Cars movies, but I can't convince myself that he does. Cars 3 is not an inspired movie by any definition I can plausibly come up with, but it does feel like somebody on the writing staff believed in it, however misguided that belief was. Despicable Me 3 feels like cold, hard product: assembled from purely mechanical logic for purely mechanical ends.

That certainly explains the glassy-eyed blandness of what I guess we should call the A-plot, Gru and Dru's awkward attempt to re-connect through high-tech crime: Gru the master villain trying to do good, Dru the hapless idiot trying to do bad. Only the fairly low-key spectacle of Carrel trotting out a similar-but-different voice for Dru (and, in one of the few scenes in the film that wrested a chuckle from me, Gru and Dru's impersonations of each other) offers even the remotest spark of life in this material, which is otherwise a pure retread of material that Despicable Me mostly handled already. Lucy's story is at least marginally different, but given too little screen time to make a proper impression.

Really, the only thing that seems to have woken the filmmakers up for extended passages of time is the material related to Balthazar Bratt, which is odd for a couple different reasons, at least: for one thing, he's not any of the film's seven protagonists (that number could go up or down based on what you want to do with the minions). For another, much odder reason, he's a one-joke character, and that joke is "boy, the 1980s! They sure existed, huh?" Which is maybe a stroke of genius? The parents of Despicable Me-aged children are at about the age to potentially have '80s-era childhood memories of their own. I cannot fathom that the actual target audience for the movie could possibly have any context for any of what we're seeing: purple suits with giant shoulder pads, parodies of '80s toy commercials, keytars, Rubik's cubes, "99 Luftballons", bubble gum - is bubble gum an '80s thing? Like, so much an '80s thing that you'd make it a critical plot element? Because Despicable Me 3 very much does that.

Even if banking so hard on nostalgia-contempt for '80s visual signifiers made sense, the film still wouldn't be doing a good job of it. The humor very much starts and stops at "the '80s happened", with the volley of references, from "it's on like Donkey Kong" to musical cameos from Michael Jackson, Madonna, and a-ha, to killer breakdancing competitions, but no actual punchlines. This kind of non-joke is rampant in modern comedy, and not worth laying at Despicable Me 3's feet entirely, but still, there you have it.

Just about the only thing that honest-to-God works in the film is its splendidly warped Europeanness. The franchise has always had a burbling undercurrent of French comic art, and Coffin's performance as the minions, though pure gibberish, is gibberish that has a clearly Romantic origin. But never till now has it gone so heavily into Europe as a setting and, to an extent, Europe as an attitude. The opening scene takes place in what's obviously the French Riviera, and the town surrounding Dru's mansion is a slurry made up of all the rural European traditions you can name, a sort of Bavarian-Alpine Italian-Romanian small town. It goes so far as to name itself Freedonia, a catch-all Mitteleuropean place name ever since it was used in the 1933 film Duck Soup, and on the one hand, damn Despicable Me 3 to hell for daring to think that it can court comparison with that greatest of all '30s comedies, but on the other hand, praise be to Despicable Me 3 if even one child discovers Duck Soup as a result of it.

My point was not about Marx Brothers films, though, but about the goofy cartoon travesty of folksy Ruritanian motifs, which really actively works. The local obsession with pigs, and the way that pig elements are worked into design; the fun, borderline-Seussian misshapenness of trim little buildings overlooking cobble streets; the very definite turn in Heitor Pereira's score towards happy concertina-driven clichΓ©s; these are all neat little touches that give Despicable Me 3 a little splash of personality that keeps it from being a total washout of aimless mediocrity. That's barely any sort of praise at all, sure, but then again: this franchise produced Minions. Let us not demand too much.

Reviews in this series
Despicable Me (Coffin & Renaud, 2010)
Despicable Me 2 (Coffin & Renaud, 2013)
Minions (Coffin & Balda, 2015)
Despicable Me 3 (Coffin & Balda and Guillon, 2017)