There's an old Hollywood story about Buster Keaton and animated movies. Apparently, the first time he saw cartoons on the silver screen, he nearly quit show business altogether. He immediately saw that he couldn't compete with the kind of physical comedy animation made possible. No matter how many elaborate stunts he invented, he could never simply ignore physics and gravity the way cartoons could. Another craftsman felled by technology.
This story occurred to me early in Despicable Me 3, the latest installment of the reliable animated series starring Steve Carell as recovering super-villain Felonius Gru. Counting the prequel, Minions, this is the fourth film in the series. The returns are diminishing, as they usually do in these franchise endeavors.
But the movie has moments of visual wit that recall the classic Looney Tunes of the Chuck Jones era, which were based on the physical comedy of performers like Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. For grownups, this is the fun stuff, and it should be savored. Carell is a Jedi master of comedic timing, and the skilled animators here match him beat-for-beat, stretching Gru's body and face into delightful examples of virtual slapstick.
As Keaton predicted so long ago, the big showstopper stunts are fantastic, too. The movie has a running gag concerning weaponized bubble gum that has fun with the elastic properties of quantum 'toon physics. Gru's army of impish helpers, the Minions, get their own showcase scenes, a couple of them choreographed like elaborate musical numbers from Hollywood's Golden Age.
Alas, a profound weariness has settled over the central premise, which was never all that original to begin with. The villain-turned-hero thing has been done to death—think Shrek, Megamind, Wreck-It Ralph, and Monsters, Inc., all the way back to the Grinch. The new movie tries to jump-start things by introducing Gru's brother, Dru (also voiced by Carell), who wants to restore the family tradition of villainy.
But in the end, Despicable Me 3 falls back on too many lazy gags—the eighties sure were crazy!—to be much fun for adults. There's no sense of exhilaration, danger, or even inspired mischief. Your best bet is to sit back and admire the cleverly deployed animation. Kids, however, will like it all just fine. The jokes are broad, the action is frantic, and those Minions can do no wrong with the grade school crowd.