REVIEW – ‘Despicable Me 4’ is entirely amusing but dreadfully overstuffed

It’s been 15 years since Illumination burst onto the already-crowded animation scene under the tutelage of ex-20th Century Fox Animation president Chris Meledandri. While their films may not contain the depth or elicit the acclaim of productions from their rival animation studios (they’re still chasing their first Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature), you can’t deny Illumination has delivered some of the most popular animated features in recent times. Think The Secret Life of PetsSingThe Grinch, and, of course, the 2023 juggernaut that was The Super Mario Bros. Movie.

But the feather in Illumination’s cap has always been the one that started it all. After three films and two spin-offs, the Despicable Me franchise has netted a staggering $4.6 billion at the worldwide box office; almost three-quarters of Illumination’s total box office pull of $6.6 billion. Whether you love these movies or not, audiences seemingly can’t get enough of Gru and those jibberish-speaking Minions. After a seven-year break, everyone’s favourite anti-villain villain is back in the entirely amusing but dreadfully overstuffed Despicable Me 4.

A film that crams in so many storylines it feels more episodic than cinematic, Despicable Me 4 serves up a whole lot more of the same in this family-friendly caper that’s really only concerned with eliciting as many giggles as possible from its intended young audience. And that’s entirely fine. Kids will love this film. It will likely make a billion dollars. Minions merchandise will fly off the shelves. You just can’t help but wish this franchise would attempt something new and a little deeper.

The fourth chapter finds Gru (Steve Carell) heading off to his 40-year high school reunion where he crosses paths with former nemesis, Maxime Le Mal (Will Ferrell). After beating Gru for the prize of Most Successful Graduate, Maxime announces he has harnessed the power of cockroaches to transform himself into an all-powerful hybrid creature. Rather than set his sights on world domination, Maxine only has eyes for revenge on Gru including targeting his beloved family.

That means it’s off to witness protection in the waspy suburbs for Gru and his crew — wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig), their adopted daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Maddison Polan), and recently born baby Gru Junior. While Maxime and his girlfriend, Valentina (Sofia Vergara) scour the country looking for Gru, the brood attempts to ingratiate themselves into suburban life with new false identities.

And that’s just really a summary of the main storyline. There are also narrative threads that involve Margo’s difficulties fitting in at her new school; Agnes struggling with leaving behind her cherished pet goat; Lucy’s ordeals with adapting to her new identity and sterile home; Gru’s failure to connect with his new baby boy and an entire underdeveloped subplot centred on Poppy (Joey King), the young daughter of Gru’s new neighbours who dreams of being a supervillain herself and blackmails Gru into helping her pull a heist at his old high school. You can see how this feels like you’re watching a television program with the episodes spliced together.

And, of course, there are the Minions and their usual goofy, trouble-causing hijinks. While the three main Minions, Kevin, Stuart, and Bob, join Gru and family in the suburbs, the remainder are shipped off to Anti-Villain League headquarters where previously retired director Silas Ramsbottom (Steve Coogan) has been entrusted to oversee an experiment to genetically create five souped-up Mega Minions in a bid to bring Maxime down. They each become archetypal superheroes that parody well-known Marvel characters like X-Men’s Cyclops and the Fantastic Four’s Mister Fantastic and The Thing.

Look, by this point, your feelings on the Minions are likely well-established. You either think they are utterly adorable and endlessly hilarious or an utter abomination that refuses to die. They are a cash cow for Illumination, so there’s just no getting rid of them anytime soon. Their shenanigans in this chapter are just as terribly silly as every other Despicable Me film. However, I will admit I couldn’t help but laugh at their antics more times than I expected. Turning five Minions into powerful superheroes that are still just as woefully inept as the regular-size ones is actually borderline ingenious and offers director Chris Renaud the chance to spoof many tired comic book movie tropes.

In terms of the main storyline, Ferrell makes a fantastic foe to battle wits with his old pal Carell. His over-the-top French accent feels in the same wheelhouse as Steve Martin in The Pink Panther or Sasha Baron Cohen in Talladega Nights. We know Ferrell can give good villain schtick with his hands tied behind his back, so he’s the perfect casting choice here. Carell is typically impressive as he effortlessly slips back into the voice-over role that made him a childhood idol with that now-iconic quasi-Russian accent. Wiig and Vergara aren’t given all that much to do, which seems like a dreadful waste of wonderful talent.

But as for the aforementioned numerous secondary plot points, they just aren’t given the screen time or screenplay pages to effectively flesh out each narrative strand. In all honesty, I had completely forgotten all about Agnes’ pet goat until it was mentioned again in the film’s finale. And I’m still not really sure what point there was to Poppy’s mission to steal a badger from Gru’s high school other than to plonk in a crazy theft/chase sequence to liven up the film. All these ideas have boundless potential, but they’re mostly just quickly wrapped up or tossed aside to flick back to the major plot.

It’s also rather confounding that this franchise seems steadfast in its decision not to age Gru’s three daughters. Yes, it’s something The Simpsons has similarly stuck to for 35 years, but it robs these young female characters of any semblance of character growth or progression. In a year where something like Pixar’s Inside Out 2 is daring to showcase the growing emotional changes of a teenage girl in puberty, it’s disappointing to see this saga refuse to even edge towards something similar. Even the addition of baby Gru Junior doesn’t add all that much to proceedings with the newborn mostly existing to elicit laughs with his bizarrely (and completely unexplained) hostile behaviour towards his beleaguered father.

Despite this film’s penchant for spiralling off into tangents that mostly go nowhere, Despicable Me 4 is still breezily entertaining fluff that will play well with young viewers. And, again, that’s absolutely fine. It sticks to its seemingly winning formula and that will appease most audiences willing to pay to watch this in cinemas. It’s school holiday time in both Australia and the U.S., so it’s the perfect fodder for parents to keep their kids occupied for 95 minutes. Whether that’s enough to carry this franchise through another 15 years is another story.

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Pierre Coffin, Joey King, Miranda Cosgrove, Stephen Colbert, Sofía Vergara, Steve Coogan, Chloe Fineman, Will Ferrell
Director: Chris Renaud
Producers: Chris Meledandri, Brett Hoffman
Screenplay: Mike White, Ken Daurio
Editor: Tiffany Hillkurtz
Music: Heitor Pereira

Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Date: 20th June 2024 (Australia), 3rd July 2024 (U.S.)

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