Friday, June 30, 2017

Despicable Me 3: Third time isn't the charm

Despicable Me 3 (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang

One should avoid going to the well too often.

At first, Gru (left) is delighted to finally meet Dru, the long-estranged twin brother he never
knew existed. But Dru's wealth, charm and swooningly handsome good looks quickly
prove annoying, particularly since Gru's life and career have bottomed out.
The Despicable Me franchise is showing its age, and for a variety of reasons. Although Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio have scripted all three films — which should ensure continuity of tone and narrative style — they’re clearly running out of ideas. Yes, this third installment is funny (for the most part); and yes, it zips along quickly enough to prevent viewer restlessness.

I’m sure children will be entertained by its colorful wackiness.

But their parents ... not so much. And that’s a shift, because the first two films played far more successfully to all ages.

This film just feels tired, much like bad guy-turned-good guy Gru, referenced by the title. Poor Gru has a constant case of the mopes this time out. Let’s face it: He was a lot more captivating as a villain, when he was, yes, despicable.

Perhaps more insidiously, Gru has been overshadowed by his banana-hued, pint-size subordinates. The Minions are a more fun — and a lot funnier — than anything Gru offers here. And poor Gru seems to know it.

Over at Blue Sky, Chris Wedge and his team have been careful not to let Scrat take over their Ice Age series, instead keeping the prehistoric squirrel/rat on the sidelines, as occasional slapstick relief. Paul, Daurio and returning Despicable co-director Pierre Coffin haven’t been equally cautious, and the result is obvious: The Minions now control the franchise.

Leaving poor Gru a somewhat listless afterthought.

The “despicable” character this time out is Balthazar Bratt (voiced by Trey Parker), a former TV child star who peaked with an evil character his adolescent self played for several seasons in the 1980s. He came complete with signature phrase — “I’ve been a baaaaaad boy!” — and wreaked fictitious havoc on a weekly basis.

Having now grown into a frustrated adult, he has embraced his fantasy bad self to become an actual super-villain, armed with sleek dance moves, 1980s outfits, big hair  and bubble-gum weapons. And he has become a thorn in the side of Gru (Steve Carell) and gal pal Lucy (Kristen Wiig), top-flight agents of the Anti-Villain League (AVL).

Alas, Bratt has escaped Gru’s pursuing clutches once too often, to the considerable annoyance of new AVL chief Valerie Da Vinci (Jenny Slate), who promptly fires him. And Lucy.

As an early sign of Paul and Daurio’s scripting sloppiness this time out, we never see Da Vinci again, after this devastating blow to Gru’s pride. No climactic redemption scene, when the story concludes. She just ... vanishes. Very unsatisfying.

Gru’s unemployment comes as a shock to adopted daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Nev Scharrel), who worry about financial stress. On the other hand, the Minions are delighted, assuming that Gru will return to his formerly larcenous ways. When he quashes this possibility, disgusted spokes-Minion Mel stages a revolt, with all of his monocular and binocular buddies storming out, blowing juicy raspberries along the way.

Well, not quite all. Jerry and Dave, absent during the strike, loyally remain with Gru and his family. Which is a good thing, since they prevent what follows from sliding too far into treacle.

At this lowest point in his life, Gru learns that he has a long-lost twin brother, who is determined to meet him. This is Dru (also Carell, somewhat higher pitched), who is obscenely wealthy, effortlessly charming and — the cruelest blow — sports a full head of hair. He’s by far the most interesting citizen in the Bavarian-style community of Fredonia, land of pigs and quaint rituals such as an annual cheese festival.

When Dru displays an eager desire for thrilling adventure, Gru has a thought: Might his twin’s fabulous wealth — and fancy gadgets — be enough to mount a fresh attack against Bratt, thus regaining respect from Da Vinci and the AVL?

Elsewhere, Mel and his gaggle of displaced Minions have their own problems.

All of this certainly sounds like the necessary ingredients for another zany romp, and to a degree Paul, Daurio, Coffin and co-directors Eric Guillon and Kyle Balda deliver just that. Gru’s first-act skirmish with Bratt is hilarious, displaying the wit and rat-a-tat timing of classic Road Runner cartoons. Gru and Dru’s third-act assault on Bratt’s Rubik’s Cube-shaped fortress also has moments.

And the wayward Minions’ detour into a televised talent show steals the whole film.

But too many other elements don’t work, or remain under-developed. Agnes’ pursuit of an actual unicorn — her most favoritest fantasy pet — is an oddly unsatisfying sidebar, little more than a way to fill time. Margo’s near-disaster with a love-struck Fredonian lad feels unfinished: a subplot with far more comedic potential, which should have lingered further.

Bratt’s tiny robotic sidekick, Clive (Andy Nyman), is another case of untapped potential: an odd character that seems a superfluous appendage, particularly when Bratt eventually reveals his legion of far more lethal toys ... which, once deployed, also vanish with bewildering haste.

Finally, Bratt’s climactic monster robot is a very tedious case of Been There, Done That. Even if this is a deliberate riff on the gargantuan Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters — following Bratt’s obsession with All Things ’80s — we can’t overlook the fact that this series already has done the slow-moving-behemoth-stumbling-through-a-city bit, when Giant Kevin saved the day in 2015’s Minions.

The voice cast does its best to liven things up, with Carell leading the charge; his slow bass drawl for Gru still gets a laugh from his verbal double- and triple-takes. (“I like it ... well, not so much ... actually, I don’t like it.”) His childlike, aggressively cheerful Dru is a clever contrast.

Steve Coogan pulls double duty, both as Fritz, Dru’s patient but forever put-upon butler; and also (briefly) as Silas Ramsbottom, the British AVL head who surrenders his position to Da Vinci. Slate is waspishly condescending as Da Vinci, but it would have been nice to see (hear) more of her. Julie Andrews’ unmistakable voice emanates from the mouth of Gru’s mother, who confirms the existence of her long-estranged second son.

But these actors can’t breathe enough life into an uneven script that often doesn’t seem to know where to go next. It may be time for Paul and Daurio to surrender the writing reins, because this series desperately needs some fresh thinking.

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