It used to be that Pixar ruled the roost when it came to CGI animated films. Nobody could beat the studio when it came to not just how good the movies looked, but the quality of the storytelling and the depth of the characters. Lately, though, some of the shine has gone off the Pixar brand. The studio's two most recent films – sequel Finding Dory and The Good Dinosaur – didn't set the world on fire the way Pixar used to with the likes of the Toy Storys, Up, Inside Out, Wall-E and The Incredibles; and there is absolutely no buzz for the upcoming Cars 3. These days the best work seems to be coming out of Disney Studios, with the likes of Zootopia and Moana, both of which were loved by audiences and critics alike.
But beavering away quietly in the background the past few years is Illumination Entertainment, the studio set up by Chris Meledandri after he left Fox in 2007 and which has been pretty much built on the strength of the Despicable Me movies. The first two Despicable Mes (and the Minions spin-off) were well received critically and at the box office, so inevitably there is a third in the series. And yes, it's actually quite good.
Following on from the second film, Gru (Steve Carell) is happily married to Lucy (Kristen Wiig) and working with her at the Anti-Villain League. But the pair are sacked after failing to stop the supervillain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker) from stealing the world's most valuable diamond. The Minions want the now-unemployed Gru to return to his life of crime, and when he refuses, most of them follow Mel and quit (just Stu and Kevin stay behind). Suddenly Gru learns that he has a twin brother, Dru (also Carrell), and the family head to Freelandia to visit him ... and Gru learns that his brother is also a bit of a villain and wants him to rejoin the "family business".
If you like the first two DM films, then the third outing will definitely not disappoint. The characters we know and love are all well established now, but the scriptwriters do manage to take them in new and interesting directions. One of the plot threads in DM3 concerns Lucy coming to terms with being a step-mother to Gru's three adopted (and adorable) daughters, and worrying that she won't be accepted. And at the same time we have Gru suddenly finding he has a twin brother, and coming to terms with the fact that his mother has been lying to him all his life. The DM films have always been steong on the theme of family, and so that continues here, but without feeling stale in any way.
We also get a fantastic villain in Bratt, a former 1980s child TV star (funnily enough, playing a young supervillain) who lost his gig when he became a spotty teen. So he turns to a life of crime for real, trying to relive his glory days, and seeking revenge on the industry that destroyed him. Parker is outstanding in the role, as you would expect from one of the men behind the genius that is South Park, Team America and The Book of Mormon. It's a combination of great writing and Parker's splendid voice performance – his first in a role not scripted by either himself or partner Matt Stone – that really bring this character to life. Throw in a plethora of great 80s music and references (I love it when a plan comes together) and you've got a villain who comes close to stealing the film as well as the odd gem or two.
But the real strength of the Despicable Me films has always been Carrell's endearing performance as Dru (how DID he come up with that voice?) and, of course, those adorable Minions. There's possibly a little too much sentimentality here, but hey, that's Hollywood (which itself comes in for quite a kicking from Balthazar Bratt). But with characters this well written and performed, and this many gags – both verbal and visual – there's plenty of fun to be had with DM3 ... and dare we say the way is most definitely left open for a fourth outing for Gru and his clan?