Despicable Me 4 Is More of The Noisy Same as Its Predecessors

Premiere Of Universal Pictures And Illumination Entertainment's "Minions" - Red Carpet
Premiere Of Universal Pictures And Illumination Entertainment's "Minions" - Red Carpet / Kevin Winter/GettyImages

If nothing else, Despicable Me 4 finally crystallized why this franchise and so much of Illumination’s output is just not my cup of tea. Everything’s too loud. Despicable Me 4, much like Sing or The Secret Life of Pets, hinges almost exclusively on overly cutesy characters screaming punchlines. Animated storytelling that involves shouting or loud punchlines isn’t innately bad. Mel Blanc screaming lines like “turn out those lights!” in classic Looney Tunes cartoons or the cut-off screams in Smiling Friends are absolutely hysterical. However, those projects pair loud vocal gags with visual humor that could only exist in animation.

Plus, so many iconic animated characters, from Gertie the Dinosaur to Toothless to WALL-E (among many others), make outstanding use of minimal or no dialogue. Animation is a medium rife with unique opportunities for visual-oriented storytelling and characterization. Just look at the "Fish Out of Water" BoJack Horseman episode! Such opportunities do not creep into this latest Illumination release. Like its predecessors, Despicable Me 4 has Minions, boisterous antagonists, or little girl Agnes (Madison Polan) shout “funny” lines surrounded by deeply lifeless animation. “Same as it ever was”, as David Byrne said.

Supervillain Gru (Steve Carell) started the Despicable Me franchise as an unabashedly wicked villain. He'd threaten to kill his neighbor's dog and steal the moon without blinking. As Despicable Me 4 opens, Gru is now firmly a "good guy" spy working for the Anti-Villain League. The rebel-to-cop pipeline is tragically alive and well. Those exploits see him lead a sting operation against his former school rival Maxime Le Mal (Will Ferrell). This cockroach-obsessed baddie vows revenge against Gru and his entire family, which now includes newborn son Gru Jr. Once Maxime escapes, Gru, wife Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), and their four youngsters move into an AVL safe house.

This new domicile is located in the rich suburban town of Mayflower, a locale Gru tries too hard to fit into. While Maxime schemes and Gru scrambles to get into a local country club, the AVL plucks five Minions for an important scientific experiment. These Minions are then injected with a serum giving them each distinctive superpowers. No longer are they mere henchmen. Now these plucky corn pops are Mega-Minions. Naturally, these five critters are more like The Seven than The Avengers once they try to start helping people.

Mike White and Ken Daurio’s Despicable Me 4 screenplay does channel one great old Looney Tunes shorts quality. Bugs Bunny and company were so fun to watch because you never knew what location they’d inhabit next. The moon? An opera? A barbershop? The possibilities were endless. Despicable Me 4 is similarly versatile in where it takes its character. When the Mega-Minions first get their powers, there’s suddenly a crime-ridden city for them to protect. It’s a place full of long alleyways and screeching that would be perfect for Daredevil or Batman to inhabit. Maxime and girlfriend Valentina (Sofía Vergara) have a single-scene run-in at a Southern gas station. Then there's an academy for villains located deep in the mountains serving as the backdrop for multiple set-pieces.

Despicable Me 4’s emphasis on gags above all else at least lends a welcome variety to environments characters can inhabit. Going everywhere from a casino to a country club would certainly make Marvin the Martian proud. The jokes themselves, unfortunately, are much less inspired. Just look at Gru’s struggles with Gru Jr.. These shenanigans remind one of countless other animated kid’s movies involving dads coping with the responsibilities of a newborn. As for the Minions, their antics have long become predictable. It’s hard to make “chaotic” figures hysterical when you can see their punchlines coming a mile away.

Even more disappointing is the deeply generic visual scheme of the entire movie. Why is everything in this universe so darn cutesy? Even cockroaches have gigantic white eyes and cuddly features! If Creech from Monster Trucks taught us anything, it’s that irresistible adorableness comes from not crafting a character to be perfect Build-a-Bear fodder. When Despicable Me 4 isn’t indulging in toyetic imagery, it’s delivering caricatured human designs that just don’t look right.

New characters like snooting neighbors Perry (Stephen Colbert) and Patsy Prescott (Chloe Fineman) have exaggerated features (gigantic chins, namely) that would look sublime on a hand-drawn Mad Magazine cover. Much like disturbingly stylized humans in Monsters vs. Aliens or that 2014 Rocky & Bullwinkle short, though, Despicable Me 4’s warped new characters register as downright wrong in a CG-animated movie. What works in one visual medium doesn’t always translate to a 3D space. Formulaic backgrounds just compound the inescapable animation problems plaguing Despicable Me 4.

Thankfully, this animated sequel has the good sense to not fester in front of people’s eyeballs for long. Credits begin running well before the 90-minute mark. What a welcome contrast to the excessive runtimes of other animated sequels like Cars 2 and Sing 2. Spirited voice-over turns also make this brief motion picture a more manageable experience. Steve Carell's vaguely European accent for Gru inspired a slew of oversized vocal turns across the Despicable Me franchise. Will Ferrell's French accent and Joey King's lisp-infused line deliveries as new characters Maxime and Poppy Prescott, respectively, continue this trend. Too many modern animated movies hire celebrities for lifeless renditions of their normal voices. It’s nice that Despicable Me 4 continues this saga’s willingness to let performers get as silly as those marketable Minions.

Less exciting is the musical landscape of Despicable Me 4.  One has to wonder why Heitor Pereira even creates an original score for these movies. Needle drops from Pitbull, Cameo, and Culture Club (among other bands) propel the plot rather than fresh orchestral compositions. Tired reminders of yesteryear aren't just confined to the soundtrack. Despicable Me 4 even dares to reference 2011 meme “honey badger don’t care”. Not since The Angry Birds Movie name-dropped “squad goals” has an American animated kid’s movie stumbled so hard at relevance.

These aren’t problems exclusive to Despicable Me 4. They’ve populated nearly all the sequels in this franchise, not to mention so many mainstream animated features aimed at youngsters. Serving up such familiar elements will likely serve Despicable Me 4 well at the box office. However, all the predictable “noise noise noise” left me colder than Gru’s iconic freeze ray.

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