More than that, though, I appreciated the moral nuance the Despicable Me franchise brings to kids’ movies—and Despicable Me 3 continues to strike this chord in a developmentally appropriate manner. For example, the first question my son asks during any movie is, “Who is the good guy and who is the bad guy?” At only five years old, he’s come to anticipate a tried and true formula when it comes scripted media: a concretely evil villain and an equally unswayable hero. It is the context by which he frames every other plot point in any given story, and he’s begun to extrapolate that context onto the world more generally.
Mostly, this trend is benign, an indication of his still evolving cognition. But I still relished the opening moments of Despicable Me 3 because they offered an accessible route to add nuance to this conversation.
“Mommy, is Gru a good guy or a bad guy?”
Unlike with almost any other movie we’ve watched together this year, Despicable Me 3 gave me the opportunity to give the kind of complicated answer such a complicated question deserves: “Gru was a bad guy, but he decided he wanted to be good. So, he’s a good guy now, but he still struggles to do the right thing sometimes.”
It was the last part of my answer that my son struggled with the most. As an avid wrestling fan, he can understand the quick pivot between hero and villain, good and evil. It is the subtle transition, the lingering struggle, that he cannot conceive of. Seeing Gru be tempted by villainy shortly after losing his job with the Anti-Villainy League left my son with a dissonance for which I am grateful. Such a tension is sorely lacking from most juvenile depictions of good and evil, and its inclusion in the media my son consumes can surely aid his understanding of the ambivalence presented in Romans 7:15:
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”
Of course, Despicable Me is primarily geared toward children, and Gru never does anything truly unforgivable. The moral ambiguity remains appropriately nominal—the villains are only evil enough to establish distinctive rooting interests for an audience like my son, for whom morally complex people are still novel concepts.
As is consistent with the Despicable Me brand, a dogged humor propels the story from one point to another so as to seamlessly integrate the heavier themes into the film’s fold. Though the plot was disjointed at best, it carried the viewer to new places (for example, the fictitious “Freedonia,” where Dru lives), a fact that helps keep the third film in this franchise surprisingly fresh. And, ultimately, the story’s busyness is perhaps the only reason such weighty topics could be broached in a kids’ animated comedy.
While Despicable Me 3 is certainly not above critique, it harnessed its brand’s efficient balance of humor and sentiment, outlandishness and complexity, to create a film that was as heartwarming as it was funny. It avoided the pitfalls of predictability that plagued the second film and benefitted from smaller doses of the minions—loveable characters that should never have been given their own film. All in all, it was a worthwhile movie with valuable themes often void in animated blockbusters—one that has provided my son with a more holistic framework with which to perceive the world.
Val Dunham graduated from Liberty University in 2011 with a BA in English. Though she's originally from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, she currently lives in Blacksburg, Virginia, with her husband, Matt, and son, Declan. In her free time, Val enjoys writing for Christ and Pop Culture, watching any and every Boston sporting event, and volunteering at Cambria Baptist Church.