It’s not easy being Gru. Once he was a proud supervillain, a stealer of moons and a master of Minions, blissfully Despicable in every way. Then came three Bambi-eyed orphans, Margo and Edith and Agnes, and a paternal love he had never known: Suddenly, he was an overseer of bedtime stories and ballet recitals; a man who voluntarily threw princess-themed birthday parties and made sure tiny teeth got brushed. In the final scenes of 2013’s Despicable Me 2, he even found true romance with Lucy (Kristen Wiig), the lady who once lipstick-tased him.
But what becomes of a Respectable Him? Sustaining the cinematic arc (and endless merchandising opportunities) of a bad Gru gone good is the tricky, sometimes thankless task faced by Illumination Entertainment’s giddy but scattershot sequel. Their solution comes straight from the playbook of ’80s soap operas and Schwarzenegger comedies: Give the man a long-lost twin—separated at birth, Parent Trap-style, in a postdivorce custody deal between his spectacularly callous mother (Julie Andrews) and the dad he never knew. (“But I thought you said my father died of disappointment when I was born,” Gru — voiced once again by Steve Carell in droll, dinner-theater-Dracula undertones — says mournfully when he hears the news.)
Though Dad may be gone, Dru survives: a fun-house mirror of his brother blessed with the same Spongebob Square-bod and garden-spade nose, except he looks less like Lurch than a lost Bee Gee, all creamy knitwear and feathery golden mane. He is also very, very rich, the scion of a pig-farm dynasty in faraway Freedonia, a magical land of sparkling fountains and soft cheeses. But Dru’s dearest wish, now that they’ve been reunited, is to have Gru teach him how to carry on the family’s felonious legacy. Opportunity arrives in the leering, mulleted form of Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), a former child star laid low by the cruelest villain of all, puberty. Still hopelessly stuck in the passé fashions of his ’80s glory days — he never strolls when he can moonwalk, and shouts catchphrases like “Son of a Betamax!” when he’s mad — Bratt plans to wreak havoc on the Hollywood that rejected him, and finance his nefarious plan by stealing a diamond as pink as a panther and big as the Ritz.
Like most sequels, Despicable 3 works hard to chase the easy charm of the original, and the flop sweat often shows in its hectic pacing and disjointed script. The girls are mostly sidelined by unicorn quests and the quirks of Freedonian marriage customs, and the Minions, those jabbering, thumb-shaped apricots in overalls, shear off almost entirely, caught up in their own Escape From Alcatraz subplot. What shines through is the visual wit and innate sweetness of the storytelling, and Carell’s cackling, cueball-skulled misanthrope — a (mostly) reformed scoundrel who can still have his cake, and arsenic too. B