Back in 2010, Illumination Entertainment released the Minions into the world via the first "Despicable Me" film. They were the supporting characters to reformed super-villain Gru (Steve Carell). But it was the impudent little yellow creatures — their featureless bodies shaped like rubbery tater tots, chattering gibberish language somewhere between Italian and alien, with bawdy senses of humor — who invaded our minds, hearts, homes and memes, and became a cultural phenomenon. Things were never the same again. Yellow took on a new meaning.
Though the Minions now have their own film (of the same name), they still pull back-up duty in the "Despicable Me" franchise, and yes, they are somewhat awkwardly shoehorned into "Despicable Me 3," a serviceable stop on the inevitable way to "Despicable Me 4." As a couple of hours of kidtertainment, you could do worse, but it's nothing to write home about.
"Despicable Me 3," directed by Pierre Coffin, Eric Guillon and Kyle Balda, written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, relies on pre-established audience familiarity with the characters and universe of the franchise, and then just throws subplots on top of subplots on top of that. Each story is so shallow that it feels like a series of shorts, with only the flimsiest of narrative threads stitching the whole thing together.
Two new characters are introduced in this third installment: Balthazar Bratt, voiced by Trey Parker, is the antagonist, a washed up child actor from the '80s turned super-villain, with a serious ax to grind against the industry that rejected him as a pimply, pubescent teen. He's got a mullet, a keytar, a purple suit with shoulder pads, and one heck of a music licensing budget (it's packed with snippets of hits from Michael Jackson to Van Halen). The other new character is a sidekick, Dru (also Steve Carell), Gru's long-lost twin brother.
After losing their jobs, Gru, wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) and their girls head to Fredonia to meet Dru, the head of the family pig farming business, which is actually a front for super-villainy, except Dru is terrible at it. While Gru shows him the ropes, the women-folk sample the local Fredonian culture, and go unicorn hunting. Eventually, it all comes together as they have to unite to fight Balthazar, who is intent on destroying Hollywood with bubble gum and lasers.
As for the Minions, unsatisfied with Gru's domestic bliss, they go to jail, in one of the film's most random subplots, after they invade a singing competition. It gives them something to do, and it gives the studio the opportunity for some seriously questionable marketing decisions — because nothing says family fun like jokes about America's prison culture. That's pretty despicable, in fact.
Parker's '80s-inspired super-villain is probably the most entertaining part of the film, aside from perhaps the Fredonian cheese festival. But "Despicable Me 3" is somehow less than the sum of its parts. The shrill, raspy-voiced shouting from Carell and Parker turn into a jumble of noise, and it's difficult to pick out punchlines. The whole thing might as well all be written in Minions chatter. It's wacky, but somehow dull, kind of like conversing with a Minion. But don't tell our new yellow overlords we said that.
"Despicable Me 3" — 1.5 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for action and rude humor)
Running time: 1:30