‘Despicable Me 4’ Review: Illumination Adds a Baby and Five Mega Minions to Gru’s Already Overcrowded Family

Seven years have passed since the last “Despicable Me” movie, and the only thing that’s changed in Gru’s world is the addition of another child, Gru Jr., who’s the spitting image of his dad: hook nose, shifty eyes, squatty head — just with slightly more hair. The addition of a biological son to a family of three adopted daughters (not to mention a platoon of unmanageable Minions) would be plot enough for “Despicable Me 4,” but whatever drama the new kid might cause goes underexamined in Illumination’s overstuffed sequel. At times, it feels less like a feature than a collection of Looney Tunes-y shorts piled one on top of another.

Returning director Chris Renaud crams in a new villain, a teenage protégé, several visits to Gru’s old boarding school, a heist (to steal a ferocious honey badger) and a hasty attempt to put the family into the witness protection program (imagine Gru trying to blend in with the country club crowd). That leaves almost no room for the kind of emotional core that’s been this series’ secret weapon. Compared to the “Toy Story” franchise, in which Andy aged alongside the series, Gru (Steve Carell) and his crew — wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) and their girls (voiced by Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier and Madison Skyy Polan) — don’t grow older or more interesting with each film.

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One could reasonably ask what “Despicable Me 4” adds to our understanding of any of these characters. What it does add is more folks to the brand’s ever-growing ensemble — some of whom, like aspiring supervillain Poppy Prescott (Joey King), could potentially carry their own films going forward. Meanwhile, screenwriters Ken Daurio and Mike White are all but obliged to play up the Minions … not that anyone’s complaining. The gibberish-spouting assistants are by far the most popular characters Illumination has ever created, and despite getting two massively successful spinoffs of their own, they steal the show here once again (their helium-sounding nonsense language still hilariously supplied by Pierre Coffin).

Early on, Anti-Villain League boss Silas Ramsbottom (Steve Coogan) informs Gru that an old rival from his boarding school days seeks revenge. Harnessing the power of the cockroach for nefarious purposes, Maxime Le Mal (Will Ferrell) pledges to kidnap and brainwash Gru’s baby. The whole family has no choice but to go into hiding, while the AVL takes custody of all but three of the Minions. After Silas blasts five of the yellow buggers with some kind of radiation, they emerge capable of stretching and smashing (Tim and Dave), chomping and floating (Jerry and Gus). A one-eyed X-Minion (Mel) comes out the other side with a visor like Cyclops, now capable of blasting a laser all the way through the earth.

These are the Mega Minions, and they deliver some pretty funny micro-sketches throughout the film. Still, going there feels like one of those creative choices you can’t take back — like making a fourth “Despicable Me” movie. We’re past trilogy territory now, and can presumably expect many more in years to come. As for the mutant Minions, are we stuck with them going forward? “I’m tired of superheroes!” screeches an old lady when the clumsy, amoeba-brained Mega Minions practically destroy the city. (You know what superpower would be amusing to give a Minion? Intelligence.)

The twist here is that these five Mega Minions are every bit as inept with their enhanced abilities as the rest of the herd is without, examples of which cleverly spoof the whole superhero genre. But audiences could just as easily by shouting, “I’m tired of Minions!” The googly-eyed merch monsters seem to be everywhere these days, and by waiting seven years for this sequel, Illumination is now courting audiences who weren’t even alive when “Despicable Me 3” came out. The four-quadrant humor spans different age groups and incorporates references to all the villains the franchise has seen before, which should appeal to that tricky young adult demo, using nostalgia to win them back to a brand they’d otherwise outgrown.

It’s a shame the film’s story team didn’t try to age up Gru’s three adopted daughters, Margo, Edith and Agnes. Not only would it be fun to see how Gru and Lucy deal with them as the girls hit adolescence, but that might have been another way of retaining fans whose own personalities are shifting and maturing. Granted, the “Despicable Me” series has never taken itself very seriously, so the fourth film is hardly the obvious place to start. But it lacks a clear reason to exist (beyond the obvious financial one).

Surely, the film’s pure entertainment value should count for something … and it does. Where the other leading computer animation studios strive for an emotional reaction, Illumination satisfies itself with laughter, and there’s lots of it in “Despicable Me 4.” As Maxime, Ferrell concocts a faux-French accent almost as thick as Gru’s Slavic one. Just wait’ll you hear the two of them sing together (whereas that hurts the ears, the new tunes from franchise tone-setter Pharrell sound fresh, mixing well with energy-boosting needle drops). As Maxime’s big-lipped girlfriend Valentina, Sofía Vergara supplies one of the film’s best voices. Stephen Colbert and Chloe Fineman are also amusing as Gru’s new neighbors.

In the end, there’s just too much going on to keep straight. What’s the point of Maxime’s big cockroach plan if the bugs don’t actually come to his support, to cite one example? While Gru is spared the headache of babysitting his own hench-creatures, it’s not at all clear what kind of influence he wants to have on his son. One thing is absolutely certain: We haven’t seen the last of these characters, even if a few of them would preferably sit out the next sequel — like the Mega Minions, who aren’t nearly as cute as they sound.

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