“Despicable Me 3” offers a case study in how a movie can be hijacked by a supporting character. Or, more specifically, characters.
The Minions — the yellow, goggled, gibberish-spouting underlings who were popular enough to earn their own film in 2015 — take up a lot of screen time here without adding to the actual plot. Since most of the animated sequel’s funniest bits don’t even involve them, the result is a restless movie that gets distracted as easily as the Minions themselves.
This latest entry to the “superbad superdad” adventure is really three stories. One good. One not-so-good. And one totally irrelevant.
First the good.
Flashback to 1985, and Balthazar Bratt (voiced by “South Park’s” Trey Parker) stars in the hit TV show “Evil Bratt.” He plays a “child prodigy and criminal mastermind bent on world domination.”
But puberty hits in Season 3, turning the adorable kid into a pimply, voice-cracking teen. With his series canceled, the genius inventor embarks on a genuine crime spree. Cut to modern day, and Bratt has become the most formidable villain on Earth, despite the fact he’s still sporting his ’80s mullet, purple jumpsuit and V-shaped shoulder pads.
His deeds put him at odds with the Anti-Villain League, whose key field agents include neckless reformed supervillain Gru (the accent-heavy Steve Carell) and his newlywed wife, Lucy (Kristen Wiig). They hope to recover the “world’s biggest diamond” stolen by Bratt.
The not-so-good part resurrects one of the hoariest ploys in cinema (or sitcoms, for that matter): the long-lost twin. In a “Parent Trap” revelation, Gru learns of a brother (also portrayed by Carell in a role that would have been better with an additional actor), now a wealthy pig farmer who dreams of being a supervillain. He’s identical, except unlike the bald Gru, Dru sports luxurious locks that could be mistaken for the hairstyle Sam Jones wore in 1980’s “Flash Gordon.”
Gru hauls his family — including adopted daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and little Agnes (Nev Scharrel) — to meet Dru in his Eastern European nation of “Freedonia” (an unearned Marx Brothers reference). While there, Agnes becomes obsessed with finding a real unicorn that supposedly lives in the forest.
Then there’s the irrelevant part: the Minions. They get thrown in prison for some reason.
The animated comedy works best when it pits the boastful Bratt against the acerbic Gru. In their inventive spy-vs.-spy battles, Gru deploys his high-tech devices against Bratt’s ’80s-centric arsenal. The scoundrel even wields a “keytar” that weaponizes many of the era’s most overplayed singles.
“Son of a Betamax!” is Bratt’s version of “Curses! Foiled again!”
In an amusing action scene, Gru and the fumbling Dru attempt a heist on Bratt’s fortress, which is modeled after a Rubik’s Cube.
The screenplay by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio (writers of the previous installments) functions best when mining these pop culture nuggets. But the episodic structure simply doesn’t mesh together, even in the finale, which attempts to combine the disparate plot lines.
The solid voice work and imaginative visual design move the story only so far. The blathering Minions are employed to do the rest of the heavy lifting, narratively speaking, yet they’re given nothing to carry.
As Gru says, “Life is just like that sometimes. We’re hoping for a unicorn, and we get a goat.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
‘Despicable Me 3’
Rated PG for action and rude humor.