Review | ‘Despicable Me 4’: A wildly imaginative yet overly plotty adventure


The latest installment in the Despicable Me franchise, the series of animated comedy films centering on Gru, a semi-reformed supervillain voiced by Steve Carell, is a fish-out-of-water tale set in a sleepy suburban safe house. It’s also a revenge story, precipitated by the escape of Gru’s arch-nemesis Maxime Le Mal (Will Ferrell) from maximum security prison.

In a prologue, we watch Gru — now a do-gooder working for the Anti-Villain League (AVL) — apprehend Maxime. It’s explained that the French-accented, pompadoured antagonist in a knee-length, green-and-gold brocade puffer coat has managed to turn himself into a virtually indestructible human-cockroach hybrid, with a weapon that can do the same to his enemies. Maxime also has the ability to control a literal army of literal cockroach soldiers in literal little green helmets.

At the same time, the movie somehow becomes a heist flick, after Gru’s teenage neighbor (Joey King), an aspiring baddie with braces and a lisp, discovers Gru’s true identity and blackmails him into helping her steal the honey badger mascot from Gru’s alma mater, a school for budding criminal masterminds. The name of the Hogwarts-like academy is Lycée Pas Bon, which translates awkwardly to something close to High School Not Good, in the manner of a francophone Tarzan.

Oh, and one more thing: No Despicable Me movie would be worthy of the name without a healthy (or should I say unhealthy?) dose of Gru’s henchmen, the Minions. Five of those yellow, antibiotic-shaped underlings, in their boss’s absence, have been transformed into mutant superheroes by a secret serum developed by the AVL. The Mega Minions, as they are known, resemble a mashup of the Fantastic Four and X-Men.

Does the title “Despicable Me 4” simply refer to the film’s numerical position in the saga, begun in 2010, including two full-length Minion spinoffs? Or is it a reference to the number of separate plots here? All the storylines simultaneously vie for the attention of Mom and Dad and their underage charges. Pop songs from the 1980s appear alongside gently scatological and buttock-related humor. Like Maxime’s roach-man, “Despicable Me 4” is a hallucinatorily imaginative yet overstuffed amalgam of unrelated elements.

Perhaps some credit/blame should go to the twisted mind of Mike White, creator of “The White Lotus,” who joins franchise veteran Ken Daurio as co-screenwriter here, along with returning series director Chris Renaud and his new co-director Patrick Delage. There’s just a lot going on.

Atop that list are the struggles of Gru, masquerading as a solar panel salesman named Chet, and his crime-fighting wife, Lucy (Kristen Wiig), going undercover as an inept hairstylist. Much of the film concerns their difficulty conforming to middle-class parenthood while in hiding from Maxime: chauffeuring three adopted daughters to school and karate lessons, coping with a new infant son, grocery shopping, and playing tennis with snooty country-clubbers (Stephen Colbert and Chloe Fineman).

It isn’t always easy to keep track of what’s happening or why. Between Ferrell’s and Carell’s over-the-top fake accents (Gru is supposed to be Russian) and the voice of Maxime’s girlfriend, also played for laughs by Colombian-born Sofía Vergara, “Despicable Me 4” can be confusing.

At times, however, you may be reminded that the franchise, which began as a fairly straightforward story of a supercriminal going soft after he falls for a trio of orphans, seems low on creative fuel. At one point, the nudge is unintentionally explicit: When Maxime discovers that his bug-shaped airplane is running on fumes, the character laments: “It’s always something. I can never focus on just being evil.”

As always, kudos goes to Imagination Entertainment’s visually inventive character design, beginning with the barrel-chested, toothpick-legged Gru, who, as Maxime puts it, looks like a “walking boiled potato.” And there’s the melted-looking visage of jowly AVL director Silas Ramsbottom (Steve Coogan) — yes, there’s a joke about his last name.

The rest of the animation is, as a rule, suitably loony. You may even find yourself pleasantly distracted from the plot now and again while fixating on random visual details, such as the gray hairs sprouting from a wart on the end of the nose of Principal Übelschlecht, the headmistress of the Lycée Pas Bon. It’s worth the diversion.

As for whether any of us really needs yet another Despicable Me sequel in the first place — let alone four mini-movies, spliced together as if by a blast from Maxime’s Roachinator gun, like separate featurettes into a freakishly multi-limbed whole — you, like the honey badger of 2011 meme fame, just may not care.

PG. At area theaters. Contains slapstick action and rude humor. 95 minutes.



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