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Despicable Me 3 swings, in spite of itself. It’s a comic whirl of music, and yes, it’s an NBC Universal product as well. But this is a snazzy new one all the same, with a decent joke ratio and a strange affability. When this thing’s not tinkering with new characters, over-threaded stories, and being an all-around parade of gags, this movie sneakily masters the art of the musical punchline. It’s hard to imagine Chuck Jones not finding the film’s Gilbert and Sullivan joke funny. This third installment isn’t too terrible. It’s not all that great, either. But you needn’t feel guilty if you prop your child in front of it while you do laundry or have some cabernet in the other room. After all, what are these films if not reasonable diversions? They’re also thunderously profitable diversions, but at least they’re harmless.
What’s new with Gru (Steve Carell)? Lots, actually. Running through Despicable Me 3’s plot is like tracking the Tasmanian devil, swirling about with onomatopoeia and half-thoughts spitting out in every direction. But here’s a stab at summarizing the many manic tales of Gru, former Telly Savalas supervillain and current married do-gooder with three adopted daughters. But wait ‘til you hear this: he now has a twin brother, Dru (also Carell). Newly discovered for this third film. Surprising, right? Not a clumsy sitcom-like device at all. Carell plays the feather-headed Dru at a high pitch, as Dru hugs and gushes and begs Gru for a chance to play in big crime. But Gru’s a changed man. He’s a domestic type now.
Or at least he was, until he’s fired from the Anti-Villain League, where he worked with his wife, Lucy (Kristen Wiig), who’s also let go. Gru gets the boot after repeatedly failing to apprehend Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), a former child star-turned-psychopath with plans to raise Los Angeles into outer space with his patented magic bubble gum that inflates, ensnares, and somehow turns air into helium – while never exploding inside one’s mouth. Bratt rocks a mullet, a handlebar mustache, dance moves to the tune of “Sussudio,” and a keytar that blasts clothes-stripping soundwaves. Now that’s comical supervillainy, folks.
The many plots of Despicable Me 3 feel like they could barely sustain a short film let alone an entire feature, especially when they don’t really tie together. I could see a short film where Agnes tries to hunt a unicorn or the minions try to escape from prison, but in Despicable Me 3, they all just kind of sit next to each other, rarely interacting and lacking any sort of rewarding payoff. It’s a movie that just happens with no investment in anything that’s taking place or how the characters interact.
Take Dru and Gru for instance. This would have been a great opportunity to give Gru a playful foil, but the characters are too similar. Dru is slightly more lighthearted and less skilled at villainy, but there’s nothing distinctive about his personality. The movie is caught between trying to create kinship between the two brothers and trying to play them off each other, and it’s bad at doing both. Oddly, it’s only during the end credits where we get a sense of a better movie where Dru and Gru would be pitted against each other in a playful, Spy vs. Spy-like duel. Instead, the film includes a scene where Dru falls and his face lands in Gru’s butt. The kids in the audience loved it.
But the film doesn't dwell on Gru and Lucy's employment challenges for long, as fortune smiles in the form of a long-lost twin brother named Dru (also Carell) who welcomes Gru's family into his rather elaborate home. I'd say "this is all the plot you need," but really that's all the plot there is. Yes, Bratt makes another play for the big diamond and yes Gru still wants to catch him to prove himself. And yes, there is a minor subplot, quite well-handled actually, concerning Lucy's attempts to bond with her new step-kids. Specifically, I appreciated how something that was set up as yet another romantic melodrama for Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) turns out to be a crowd-pleasing moment about consent and agency.
At least as hysteric is Dru (also Carell), the twin brother Gru never knew he had. Clad in bright white (compared with Gru’s gloomy grays), Dru is everything the bald Gru is not: insufferably cheery, fabulously wealthy and blessed with a full head of wavy blond hair. However, he envies Gru’s bad-guy reputation and wants the two of them to team up as master villains. Gru, now a responsible married family man with three adopted young kids, resists at first but later gives in to temptation.
A scream-filled high-speed car chase, a shrieky assault on Bratt’s fortresslike hideout and a screechy final battle that practically levels Hollywood ensue.
Gru’s wife, Lucy (Kristen Wiig), is on hand to try to keep her hubby on the straight and narrow and to be a good, caring mom to her adopted brood.
Unlike Pixar’s pictures, with their multiple layers of meaning that make them appealing to adults and kids, there’s not much below the surface in “Despicable Me 3.” It’s a standard kiddie cartoon: noisy, colorful and forgettable.
The Minions end up on their own mini-adventure, one that culminates with the scene-stealing yellow bastards in prison together. The choice to split the Minions from Gru's adventure is a smart one, as it allows the characters to exist as their own little mini-movie without detracting from the core narrative. The characters are pretty funny in moderate doses, and again I am thrilled that something "new" (as opposed to a recycled property from the 1980's) has become a big part of the pop culture lexicon. To directors Pierre Coffin and Kyle Baldas' credit (to say nothing of writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio), the Minions are a much bigger part of the ad campaign than the movie.
There is a great theoretical version of Despicable Me 3 that exists, one that deals with the family struggling with unemployment, Gru struggling over feelings of failure and the whole sibling rivalry thing with a bit much punch. But this is not that film, as the narrative is mostly an excuse for well-staged gags, just as Bratt's persona of a 1980's child star gone rotten (easily the least successful portion of the film) is an excuse for 1980's references and tunes. But the film is consistently amusing and the franchise has a keen understanding of the constant tightrope that is being a parent to young kids.
Gru and Lucy enlist Gru’s long-lost brother, Dru (also Mr. Carell), to assist in Bratt’s capture. Dru, who lives in a seemingly Mediterranean paradise called Freedonia (you heard that right, but the Marx Brothers references end there), is obscenely wealthy and has an indefinable blondish hairdo apparently trendy among the obscenely wealthy.
Gru and Dru bicker but find common cause when Bratt — a petulant, mulleted former 1980s TV child star — leads a giant robot of himself and an army of malevolent flying action figures on an invasion of Hollywood. Of course, the short, goggled and sometimes cyclopean minions are on hand, engaging in a prison food fight and dancing in a cancan-like production number. Innocuous pandemonium ensues in candy colors.
The females receive short shrift. Gru and Dru’s mother (Julie Andrews) is a randy yet remote matriarch; Margo is a scold; Agnes lives to find a unicorn; and the formerly single Lucy finds fulfillment when she exults, “I’m a mom, I’m a mom!” The daughters, yes, are rescued from jeopardy. Not that a voluble little boy at my screening objected.
Yes, Despicable Me 3 has those mumbling creatures, and Carrell keeps after his Lugosi shtick, and the little girls talk about memes in cloyingly button-cute ways. It’s all par for the mini-golf course. Yet there’s an undeniable rhythm to the movie, as nudging as it may be. Minions felt like a frenetic contract extension for Illumination, and Despicable Me 3 retains some of that feeling. But at least it slows the hell down. The laughs are back. Characters like Gru and Agnes remain likable. The Minions aren’t in every scene, and so the humming of their buzzy voices is less cumbersome. This is a mild return to franchise form, which is like saying that one of the descending plane’s jets started working again. Despicable? No. Deal-able? Sure.