‘Despicable Me 4’ Review: Want to Save This Struggling Film Franchise? Turn It Into a TV Series

Financially speaking, the “Despicable Me” franchise is in fine form. Over the course of five feature films (with number six arriving this week), the Illumination Animation property has become (deep breath): the  highest-grossing animated film franchise, the 15th highest-grossing film franchise of all time and, one of the highest-grossing media franchises of all time. These movies are bankable! And while we expect “Despicable Me 4” — the first new feature in the series in two years (and the first non-“Minions” branded spin-off in seven — to continue the series’ bankability, these misadventures are starting to run dry from a creative standpoint.

At least in the cinematic sense. There are still stories to tell in the world of Felonious Gru (super-villain turned genuinely nice guy), but at this point, there’s far too many of them. Overstuffed with characters, storylines, and kid-friendly gags, Chris Renaud’s latest film makes a strong — if accidental — case that it’s high time we turn “Despicable Me” and “Minions” into, gasp, a TV series. “Despicable Me 4” already feels like six episodes of just such a show, crammed into a single unwieldy, disconnected, and oddly episodic outing.

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It opens with Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) still up to old tricks: pretending to be a bad guy to actually get a real bad guy. Over the course of his three films, plus a Minion-centric sequel about his early years, Gru has gone from struggling super-baddie to one of the star agents of the Anti-Villain League. His latest gig finds him back where, well, some of this started (again: we’ve got the Gru prequel already done and dusted). It’s a high school reunion! (Truly, truly evil.) No one at the Hogwarts-esque Lycée Pas Bon is hip to Gru’s new line of work, but they sure know he’s not up evil snuff anymore, because when they hand out an award for best alumni, it goes to Maxime Le Mal (voiced by Will Ferrell), who has never gotten over a karaoke-aided beatdown from Gru decades ago.

How this has impacted Maxime is hard to parse, beyond the fact that he’s become so obsessed with cockroaches that he’s turned himself into one. O…K. That’s enough to land him a top spot on the AVL’s most wanted list, but when Gru and co. turn up at the reunion and haul him in, all he’s got in his arsenal are insults (Gru is a “bald loser with a dad bod”) and some icky spikes. Alas, as soon as he’s caught and tossed in an AVL prison, he breaks out, promises to track down Gru and family, and turn sweet baby Gru Jr. into a tiny little roach. As far as evil plans go, it’s not that ingenious.

And yet, the film’s script — from franchise mainstay Ken Dario and the frighteningly multi-talented Mike White — uses that as a vessel for something smarter. Well, at first.

Terrified by the bug-shaped baddie out to get their star family, the AVL opt to toss Gru, wife Lucy, their chubby lil baby, and adorable three adopted daughters Margot, Edith, and Agnes into what amounts to witness protection in the ritzy town of Mayflower. Some of the Minions can even come with (but not all, as a large portion are directed to AVL HQ for, eh, whatever reason you can think up, that’s as good as any), while Agnes’ pet goat Lucky and Gru’s dog Kyle are forced to, we dunno, go the kennel or something? Despite the messy nature of the split, it offers a fun concept: can Gru and the family play normal as if their lives depended on?

'Despicable Me 4' Mega Minions
‘Despicable Me 4’Illumination & Universal Pictures

Unfortunately, that plot mostly goes nowhere, as Renaud’s film sets about further slicing and dicing his core group. Lucy (voiced by Kristen Wiig) is shunted off to play at being a hairdresser, the girls have to deal with bullying in various forms, and the HQ-bound Minions essentially get to play act at a bevy of James Bond-esque and Fantastic Four-derivative adventures. Could this not be spread to “Minions 3”? Guess not.

Meanwhile, Gru’s mission to pretend to be a normal suburban dad (and solar panel salesman) backfires the minute nefarious neighbor teen Poppy (voiced by Joey King) realizes the wacky patriarch next door is actually the world-famous former super-villain she has long idolized. Kids these days! Soon, Poppy has enlisted Gru, the baby, and whichever Minions weren’t dropkicked in the vague direction of AVL HQ to help her pull off a massive heist to impress the heavies at Lycée Pas Bon. Did you forget about Maxime? You’d be forgiven for that.

On their own, all of these stories have something to recommend them (Poppy’s insanity is actually quite fresh, the Minions being turned into bad superheroes is funny), but strung together into the blandest approximation of a single feature with a cohesive narrative, “Despicable Me 4” falls agonizingly short. While cinema these days might be choked with movies-that-really-should-just-be-TV (hello, “Horizon”), here is a film that would genuinely benefit from being sliced into diced into a different medium better suited for the dueling stories it’s telling. It’s not despicable, it’s just a little disappointing.

Grade: C

Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment will release “Despicable Me 4” in theaters on Wednesday, July 3.

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