Despicable Me 4 Review: No More Tears

Steve Carell‘s Russian-ish accent as Gru in the Despicable Me movies hasn’t always been easy on the ears but for the fourth installment — sixth, really, since the Minions movies are barely spin-offs — he takes it to a new level. The well-worn, sitcom-safe premise for this one is that Gru and his family have to enter witness protection and, therefore, must pretend not to be who they actually are. It’s an extra level for Carell to play, as the character is now effectively acting, and really badly.

This induces Gru to both yell and over-enunciate, like the way ignoramuses often speak to foreigners thinking it makes them more understandable. With Gru committing to the bit badly and Carell doing so brilliantly, the combination is alchemy. It revives interest in a character who’s become somewhat banal since leaving villainy behind.

It’s easy to think of the Despicable Me movies as the anti-Pixar. They have zero interest in making audiences cry; even a subplot about Gru trying to bond with his baby boy is just an excuse for tit-for-tat slapstick. Illumination remembers that cartoons are sometimes at their best when they’re just funny. The combination of Wile E. Coyote-style plots and props with Three Stooges violence doesn’t work for everyone, but if you’ve already enjoyed any of these movies, Despicable Me 4 gets straight to the heart of what works about them.

It also feels designed both for short attention spans and pause moments on the home player. Loaded with subplots, it cuts back from one to another any time there’s even the slightest risk someone might be bored with the one at hand. This isn’t as frenetic as it may sound, mainly because each storyline is just an excuse for gags and shtick anyway.

Le Mal Adjusted

The occasion for Gru and his family to go into hiding is the escape from prison of his retroactively longtime foe Maxime Le Mal, a part-cockroach super-villain voiced by Will Ferrell doing a French accent. Regular Illumination director Chris Renaud almost manages to make Le Mal’s cockroach henchmen cute, giving them each tiny army helmets and smiley faces. Sadly, the Minions vs. roaches battle you’d expect to happen as a result…doesn’t. (Of course, there are always the sequels. Many, many sequels.) Le Mal is actually the least likable part of the movie, feeling like a less successful ripoff of Talladega Nights’ Jean Girard, and Ferrell successfully makes him hissable. It’s unfortunately not the charismatic kind of unlikable, though; wrestling fans call it “go-away heat.”

Whisked away to an affluent suburb, Gru’s family go on their own mini-quests. Matriarch Lucy (Kristen Wiig) gets excited for her new life as a hairstylist, despite being terrible at it. Adopted daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Madison Polan) deal with a new school and a zealous karate teacher. Gru, while dealing with the hazards of babysitting an infant, becomes the target of a spoiled neighbor girl named Poppy (Joey King). And although a couple of the yellow, nigh-indestructible Minions (Pierre Coffin) are allotted to them, the rest get shipped back to the Anti-Villain League headquarters, where five get turned into superheroes. With Le Mal also on his own journey in search of Gru, that’s a lot to keep track of.

Poppy Culture

The three little girls suffer the most from the divided narrative, getting very little to do, so if they were your favorite characters, brace for them, mostly getting upstaged by Poppy, who effectively forces Gru to be a father figure to her as well. King makes Poppy a complex enough character that this bait-and-switch works; she serves as a conduit for the only real villain heist in the film, which these movies require.

As for the Minion superheroes, or Mega-Minions, their scenes serve as a meta-commentary on superhero fatigue. They prove absolutely useless at helping the innocent and with their deadly, uncontrolled powers, come across like The Seven from The Boys, if they were complete morons rather than corrupt fascists. This prompts a mob to yell that they’re tired of superheroes; Reynaud seems to be presuming that at least a few parents in the audience will cheer that line.

Oddly, after the franchise established Kevin, Stuart, and Bob as the primary Minions in the spin-off films, Despicable Me 4 almost goes out of its way not to use them, save in the opening Illumination logo gag. Paradoxically, though, there’s more Minion comedy in this one than in Minions 2, where Gru was the protagonist; here, he’s as much comic relief as anything. Poppy is the character who drives most of the story forward, and she shows up maybe halfway through the movie. If you’re looking to this movie to care about a protagonist overcoming obstacles, it may not be the one.

Play the Hits

On the other hand, channeling Ian Holm’s Napoleon in Time Bandits, if little people hitting each other is what you like, this is pure candy. Gru and the Minions bring back memories of Adam West teaming with the Three Stooges in 1965’s The Outlaws Is Coming — come for the hammy lead, stay for the slapstick.

The animation may have gotten too good, at times, for such blatantly cartoonish hijinks. The opening scene of a car on a mountain road could almost be live-action, and a tracking shot through the Minions’ cubicle room feels as meticulous as anything similar in a non-animated feature. It’s sure to give the pause button a workout on streaming and Blu-ray, so packed is it with individual Minions doing their own wacky bits.

To Minionfinity and Beyond

The movie culminates in what feels like a franchise curtain call, which seems highly unlikely to be final. This installment feels made to print money, and Universal’s not going to put any brakes on that. Thankfully, Despicable Me 4 feels like it has recovered what really worked about the first film, and ditched a lot of what didn’t about the follow-ups. Like Roger Rabbit, whose interactions with Baby Herman are an obvious source of inspiration, they just want to make you laugh. And assuming this sort of humor is your bag to begin with, laugh you will.

Grade: 4/5

Despicable Me 4 opens July 3 in theaters.