One of the many — and we mean many — subplots in “Despicable Me 3” is about a girl’s obsession with finding a unicorn. The adorable tot spends her waking hours wishing and hoping and dreaming, and she comes close — but in the end what she finds is a sweet little goat. It’s very cute, and it does the trick — but it’s still, you know, a goat.
One could say that this third installment in Illumination’s “Despicable Me” series, directed by Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda, shares something with that little goat. When “Despicable Me” first came out in 2010, introducing the world to those squishy, chattering Minions and the gloriously weird pseudo-Slavic deadpan of Steve Carell, it was a unicorn: fresh, inventive, unique. But this third one, leaning on an endless litany of ‘80s pop culture references to entertain parents and a whole lot of noisy, forgettable action to please the kids, feels more like that goat. It still does the trick — for now. But it ain’t no unicorn.
Luckily, “Despicable” still has its core characters, especially the invaluable Carell as turtlenecked, spindly-legged Gru, a villain gone straight. Indeed, the filmmakers have found a way to double their key asset’s contribution by introducing Gru’s heretofore unknown twin brother, Dru, also voiced by Carell of course.
But first, we learn that things are going quite well on the personal front for Gru since we last left him, at the end of “Despicable Me 2,” in newly found marital bliss with the formidable Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), who’s thrilled to become a mother to the three girls (or “goruls,” as Gru pronounces it) that Gru adopted under nefarious pretenses in the first film. Now, of course, Gru is a doting dad, and Lucy makes five.
But professionally? Not so much. There’s a new boss at the Anti-Villain League, and she immediately fires Gru for his failure to nab the new villain in town: Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), an aging, disgruntled ‘80s child star. Bratt is bitter that his fans all deserted him when he hit puberty. Now he’s bent on revenge against the industry that betrayed him — and determined to dance-fight his way to world destruction.
He’s also stuck in an ‘80s time warp, which is quite amusing if you lived through them (which none of the kids watching this film have, but we know that’s nothing new in kids’ entertainment — kids and parents just watch parallel movies). So he has shoulder pads, and a long, mullet-style hairdo with an ungainly bald patch. His favorite toy is a Rubik’s cube, and he wears — of course — shoulder pads. He loves to moonwalk, and his personal soundtrack is a trip down memory lane: “Bad,” ‘’Into the Groove,” ‘’Take On Me” and “99 Luftballons,” to name a few.
With Bratt winning the opening round, Gru and Lucy come home jobless. At least they have Margo, Edith and little Agnes, who does thoughtful things like cook them gummy bear-and-meat soup for dinner. She even sells her dear stuffed unicorn to help her parents out.
Then, unexpected news: Gru has a twin brother. So the family departs for Freedonia (not an ‘80s reference, but a Marx Brothers one), where Dru — richer and more successful than Gru, of course — lives on a pig farm. But he also owns some really cool stuff, and wants Gru to teach him how to be a villain. Meanwhile, the womenfolk are exploring downtown Freedonia, which looks suspiciously like Monaco, and experiencing the unique ritual of its cheese festival.
And what, you ask, about the Minions? Well, they’re in prison, having invaded a talent contest. If that sounds confusing, it is. They still do produce the occasional, reliable fart joke — but it’s hard not to think that there was some difficulty finding them a useful role here. As for Dr. Nefario, he sits this one out, encased in carbonite.
Given that the main theme of the previous films has to do with crime and redemption, good and evil, it’s not a stretch to imagine that this film, too, will present Gru with that crucial identity issue once again — is he a villain, or a good guy? Luckily, thanks to Carell’s talent, we still care.
But one gets the sinking feeling that the ideas are starting to slowly run out. When “Despicable Me 4” arrives a few years hence, let’s hope it’s regained a bit of that unicorn magic.
“Despicable Me 3,” a Universal release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America “for action and rude humor.” Running time: 90 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPAA definition of PG: Parental guidance suggested.