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Despicable Me 3 is everything good and bad about the franchise in one messy package

There’s heartfelt, good stuff in Despicable Me 3. But there’s also a lot of junk to sift through to find it.

Universal Pictures
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

For the past few years, the Despicable Me franchise’s Minions — the humanoid, cheddar-yellow creatures who speak in gibberish, have varying numbers of eyes, and harbor desire to don women’s undergarments — have become a cultural force on their own. They’re part of an inescapable meme. They’ve won the affection of our nation’s children. Their popularity is so potent that after Despicable Me 2 came out in 2013, they even headlined their own movie, 2015’s aptly titled Minions. At this point, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a Despicable Me film that doesn’t rely heavily on the diminutive, pill-shaped beings to drive its story.

But the franchise’s latest entry, Despicable Me 3, puts a noble effort into returning the Minions and the franchise to its roots.

This installment, co-directed by Eric Guillon, Kyle Balda, and Pierre Coffin (who also voices all the Minions), sees the reformed supervillain Gru (Steve Carell), his wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig), and their adopted daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Nev Scharrel) working out what it means to be a family. At the same time, Gru meets a twin brother he never knew existed. And the upshot is that the Minions are pushed out of the spotlight (as much as anyone can do with a force like the Minions). Essentially, Despicable Me 3 relegates them to sideshow status, deploying their antics more in segues between scenes, as opposed to giving them their own extensive plot.

The result is a warm, endearing throwback to what made the first Despicable Me movie so special: the idea of family — both the kind we choose and the kind that chooses us — and the vulnerabilities inherent in opening yourself up to that family.

Despicable Me 3 is not fully successful, as it’s stuffed with too many competing plots and subplots involving everything from unemployment, new bosses, and a villain voiced by South Park’s Trey Parker to ’80s nostalgia, exploring a foreign country, and Gru’s brother Dru, who we previously didn’t know existed. But there’s still a lot to like, and Despicable Me 3 leaves us with a lot to look forward to, should Universal keep the franchise going with a fourth movie.

The best thing about the Despicable Me movies is how they portray and imagine family

The single best moment of the Despicable Me franchise happens toward the end of the first film. In the middle of the final supervillain battle, Gru rescues Margo, Edith, and Agnes from his enemy, Vector (Jason Segel).

Earlier in the movie, Gru had adopted the three girls and then abandoned them, and now he must fight to get them back. So as she’s being rescued, Margo is hesitant to jump into Gru’s arms, because she’s afraid he might leave her again. But he insists.

“Margo, I will always catch you. I will never let you go again,” he yells to her, before she jumps.

It’s a small, tender moment that simultaneously gets at both characters’ vulnerabilities, their fears, and the spirit of the story, which argues that allowing yourself to love someone and letting them be a part of your family means trusting them. And neither Despicable Me 2 nor the Minions movie got close to achieving that kind of emotionally moving moment.

Despicable Me 3 starts to get the franchise back on track in that respect.

Lucy, who married Gru in the second movie, is now a mother to her and Gru’s three adopted girls. Despicable Me 3 explores her relationship with her new family; despite being an adept anti-villain secret agent, being a mom is still foreign to the feisty daredevil.

There’s sneaky, sly stuff here as the movie explores the difference between being liked and being a good mother, what it’s like to be a new member of an already established family, and how that’s different (or not so different) from being adopted. Lucy doesn’t know whether to tuck the girls into bed or just watch them from the doorway of their bedroom, nor does she know when to discipline them or give them a painful but necessary dose of reality.

In Despicable Me 3’s outlook, the toughest thing about being a parent is wanting to shield your kids from every possible moment of pain while understanding that you can’t. The heightened stakes of the movie’s main plot — complete with a dangerous, ’80s-themed supervillain who wants to destroy the world — make that sentiment as literal as saving your children from a collapsing building.

But there are also quieter, more poignant moments in the movie — like the ones Lucy has with the three girls, or a scene where Gru has to explain the existence of unicorns to Agnes — that echo the tenderness of the first film. And those moments stand to appeal more to adults and parents than the kids who dragged them to the movie.

But Despicable Me 3 is really, really messy. Almost terminally messy.

Despicable Me 3’s tender moments are often drowned out by everything else its filmmakers want to smash into its 90 or so minutes.

The Minions are the biggest thing about the franchise, so it makes sense that they get an adventure of their own, even if it’s much more restrained than what we saw in Despicable Me 2. They stage an uprising against Gru’s reluctance to get back into villainy, and along the way, there are a number of jokes about nudity (if you’ve ever wanted to see Minions in jail outfits running a prison from the inside out, this is your movie), as well as plenty of Minion flatulence.

Meanwhile, the Anti-Villain League, which Gru and Lucy are members of, undergoes a shake-up at the top and introduces a new boss named Valerie Da Vinci (Jenny Slate). She instantly makes things stressful for Lucy and Gru.

And separate from that, Gru finds out he has a brother named Dru, and a father who he never knew. Dru wants to be a supervillain just like their father was, but has no idea that Gru has already tried and given up on that life.

Finally, the main villain in the film is Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), a child star from the ’80s who wants to get revenge on the people who canceled his show and Hollywood in general. He’s on the AVL’s most-wanted list, which brings his and Gru’s fates together.

Your guess as to which one of these plots (aside from the Minions’ prison coup) functions as the main narrative of the film is as good as mine.

Balancing all these elements is impossible, and some characters are inevitably never heard from again after our first encounter with them. Others see their storylines get stuck in a holding pattern while the rest of the movie’s plots try to catch up. It makes for an uneven film, where Despicable Me 3’s strongest characters and themes (Lucy and Gru’s relationship to their daughters) and funniest bits (the Minions running a prison) — are compromised in order to speed us toward the boisterous finale.

It’s only after Despicable Me 3’s predictable ending, in which all of the movie’s loose ends are either purposely pared down or accidentally forgotten, that the franchise as a whole feels like it can truly move forward. With all distractions and gimmicks squashed, at least for the moment, Despicable Me can hopefully return to the themes of family and trust that initially made it so special and, contrary to its name, absolutely likable.