Despicable Me 3 in Dolby Vision HDR and Atmos Sound

despicable me 3

Studios have always milked the proverbial cash cow—if a movie is successful, make sequels. The first feature-length movie sequel is considered to be The Fall of a Nation, which was released in 1916 as a sequel to the 1915 classic The Birth of a Nation. After that, sequels became commonplace, from The Thin Man series in the 1930s to the James Bond movies starting in the 1960s, from Star Trek and Star Wars to The Godfather, Terminator, The Matrix, Alien, and all the superhero franchises of today. So it’s no surprise that, after the success of the animated Despicable Me in 2010, Universal cranked out Despicable Me 2, Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, and now, Despicable Me 3.

I wasn’t all that interested in this one, but I happened to have a free evening on opening night. And since it was supposed to be graded in Dolby Vision high dynamic range with an Atmos soundtrack, I decided to check it out at my local Dolby Cinema. I thought it might be difficult to get a good seat on opening night, but very few tickets had been sold for the Dolby Cinema screening, so I was only three seats away from my favorite spot.

To bring you up to speed, super-villain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) renounced his evil ways by the end of the first movie to be more of a father to his three adopted daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Elsie Fisher). In the second outing, he joins the Anti-Villain League and marries fellow operative Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig).

In Despicable Me 3, Gru and Lucy try to thwart Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), a former-child-star-turned-super-villain who wreaks havoc on Hollywood for rejecting him after he hit puberty. They fail to capture Bratt and are tossed out of the AVL by its new leader, Valerie Da Vinci (Jenny Slate). Meanwhile, Gru learns from his mother (Julie Andrews) that he has a twin brother, Dru (also voiced by Carell), a successful pig farmer in Freedonia—no doubt a nod to the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. Dru wants to learn the ways of super-villainy to continue the real family business started by their father. In Freedonia, Lucy tries to be more of a mother to her step-daughters, and Agnes (now voiced by Nev Scharrel) hunts for a real unicorn in the Crooked Forest.

Of course, the Minions (Pierre Coffin) wreak their own brand of havoc throughout. In fact, my favorite scene in the entire movie is the Minions’ singing Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” on Sing, a TV talent show from another Universal animated move of the same name. I wonder if the song was actually translated into Minionese?

Overall, the movie is nothing to write home about. It’s clearly aimed at kids—the opening title card has two fart jokes—but there isn’t much for adults. It’s nice to hear some hits from the 1980s, when Bratt’s TV show was on the air, and Pharrell Williams’ original songs are certainly catchy. But isn’t it about time to retire Michael Jackson’s “Bad” from movies like this?

To my great disappointment, the HDR image looked no better than a conventional cinema; the opening full-field black screen was dark gray, and things did not improve from there. As with many animated features, Despicable Me 3 doesn’t have many dark scenes, and the few it does have—such as Gru sitting in his once-secret lair, despondent after being fired from the AVL—looked flat and dull. Also, bright parts of the image did not appear to be brighter than in a conventional presentation. Was the projection system misadjusted, or was it actually graded with gray blacks and middling brightness?

I almost walked out; after all, I paid extra for Dolby Cinema, and this did not look like the HDR I’m used to in that venue. But I stuck it out so I could report my findings to you. After the showing, I ducked into one of the other theaters playing Despicable Me 3 to see if what I had just seen was the same in terms of dynamic range. I happened to catch the relatively dark scene with Gru in his lair, and to my amazement, it was even worse! So the image I had just seen was probably intentional and not an equipment problem.

By far, the best element of the movie was the Dolby Atmos soundtrack. There is plenty of activity in the entire immersive soundfield—for example, hundreds of Brattbots flying around. And like many recent Atmos soundtracks, the music is mixed very effectively well into the surrounds and overheads. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to charge my iPhone, so it didn’t have enough juice to measure the levels over 90 minutes. It was fairly loud, but not painfully so.

I was quite disappointed in Despicable Me 3 as a movie and an example of HDR. Based on what I saw in the conventional presentation, I surmise the HDR image was intentionally graded that way, which is ridiculous. If I’m correct about that, I can’t recommend spending the extra money to see it in a Dolby Cinema. On the other hand, if it was an equipment problem, it might look much better in other Dolby Cinemas. In any event, it’s not worth seeing in a commercial cinema—unless you have kids under 10 years old. In that case, you might get a contact high from their laughter at the Minions.