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Illumination Serves Up Familiar Antics

Illumination Serves Up Familiar Antics

In Despicable Me 4, the latest installment of Illumination Studio’s popular franchise, Gru (a winning Steve Carell) confronts the subtle villainy of suburban life. There’s something about the charmed aesthetics of Mayflower that doesn’t sit right. Maybe it’s the near-identical cottage-style homes, all painted the same shade of eggshell white and retrofitted with pristine pools; or perhaps it’s the residents, a wealthy and entitled bunch bent on excluding the unfamiliar. Whatever the reason, the vibes are certainly off. 

Directed by Chris Renaud from a screenplay by The White Lotus creator Mike White and franchise stalwart Ken Daurio, Despicable Me 4 is a reliable follow-up for this financially dependable series. A new setting, new villain and new characters, including Gru and Lucy’s newborn Gru Jr., serve up enough fun and antics that will satisfy existing fans. The plot can sometimes feel like a chaotic melange stretched too thin, but White, who wrote the Illumination avian charmer Migration, elevates the overall narrative by injecting doses of his perennial interest in the social codes of the rich. The Minions get a zany B plot that becomes one of the film’s strongest threads and a strong voice cast keeps the film engaging and nimble. 

Despicable Me 4

The Bottom Line

A familiar venture with some genuinely silly moments.

Release date: Wednesday, July 3
Cast: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Pierre Coffin, Joey King, Miranda Cosgrove, Stephen Colbert, Sofía Vergara
Director: Chris Renaud
Screenwriter: Mike White, Ken Daurio

Rated PG,
1 hour 35 minutes

Despicable Me 4 begins with an exciting confrontation (courtesy of slick angles and tense music by composer Heitor Pereira) between Gru and a new villain, Maxime Le Mal (Will Ferrell). The pair’s history goes back to when they were students at Lycee Pas Bon, the premier institution for aspiring bad guys. They meet again at their school reunion, which, no matter the length of your rap sheet, is still fraught with aged tensions, awkward exchanges and not-so-subtle competitive small talk.

At the soirée, Maxime, a cockroach obsessive, unveils his new invention, a device that endows him with qualities of the near-indestructible vermin. Gru, newly reinstated to the Anti-Villain League after the shenanigans of Despicable Me 3, only attended the reunion to arrest Maxime, which he does after the latter’s dramatic presentation. 

All seems well until Maxime, with the help of his bug army and his wife (an underused Sofía Vergara), escapes the Anti-Villain League’s maximum security prison. Before his jailbreak, he records a video message vowing to “exterminate Gru.” AVL boss Silas Ramsbottom (Steve Coogan) is, naturally, spooked, so the organization relocates the Gru family, which now includes Gru Jr., an infant, to Mayflower. There, Gru, Lucy (Kristen Wiig), Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Madison Skyy Polan) assume new identities. When Agnes in particular chafes at the idea of lying about her name — she’s now Brittany — Gru humorously begs her to consider it “high-stakes pretending.” 

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The new identities are a tough sell and some of the most winning moments in Despicable Me 4 detail the family’s attempts to fit into Mayflower. Gru swaps out his signature dark garb and scarf for khakis and pink polo shirts. He’s now a part-time solar power salesman and stay-at-home dad. Lucy becomes a world-class beautician, working in the stuffy salon on Main Street. Margo attends a new junior high school, where popular girl Poppy (an excellent Joey King) reigns supreme. Meanwhile, Agnes and Edith attend a karate program run by a menacing instructor (Brad Ableson). That endeavor makes for some inventive sequences, including a surprisingly high-stakes supermarket chase involving Lucy and the girls. 

The cast delivers engaging voice performances, with Carell and King leading the pack. As Gru, Carell retains the villain’s signature irritability while also touching on the vulnerable enthusiasm of raising his new infant. Trying to bond with Gru Jr., who rejects his paternal affection, becomes top priority for this dad. The other mission is to befriend the country-club family next door, who seemingly want nothing to do with their neighbors. Perry (Stephen Colbert) treats Gru with cutting disdain, and through their interactions the subtle cruelty of this suburb is evident. Patsy (Chloe Fineman) is friendlier, and even invites Gru and Lucy to the country club for drinks and tennis. 

It’s Poppy, their daughter, who proves to be the most obviously sinister and therefore interesting. The teen quickly figures out that Gru is a villain (why the AVL didn’t scrub the web remains unclear) and uses that information to blackmail him. The stakes of their reluctant partnership — Poppy enlists Gru to help her with a heist — are low, but it does offer a new adventure as well as the genuine character development that most of the Despicable Me films lack. 

While the Grus adjust to a quiet life, Maxime hunts for them. He and his wife get into their own frenzied adventures, but this part of the narrative feels underdeveloped at times. Maxime plans to abduct Gru Jr. as payback, which is a far cry from the early threats of extermination, but still evil. Running a brisk 95 minutes, Despicable Me 4 doesn’t leave enough time for Maxime to enact his plans in a way that packs an emotional punch.

The fate of the Minions offers some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments and impressively detailed animation. Silas enlists the gaggle of yellow beings to train as the AVL’s top agents. A select group of them undergo an experimental treatment that turns them into super Minions. Their training sequences — both at AVL headquarters and in the city — stick to the tradition of Illumination animators having fun with the Loony Tunes-style bits. They also end up, somewhat ironically, grounding Despicable Me 4, which can get dizzying with its twists and turns. When in doubt of direction, just trust the Minions.

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