Director: Chris Renaud Screenwriter: Mike White, Ken Daurio Cast: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Pierre Coffin, Joey King, Miranda Cosgrove, Sofía Vergara, Steve Coogan, Chris Renaud, Madison Polan, Dana Gaier, Chloe Fineman, Stephen Colbert, Will Ferrell Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 94 min. MPAA: PG

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14 years ago, the villain Gru (Steve Carell) found himself reforming his ways to become a reluctant adoptive father to three sweet girls. Remember those girls? Because Despicable Me 4 seems to forget about them. And also forgets about Gru’s wife, Lucy (Kristen Wiig). And the villain introduced at the beginning of this film. There is too much going on within this sequel that piles on so much characters and plotlines, unable to balance any of it within the manic slapstick. A film this colorful and frenetic shouldn’t be this boring, especially for a studio that has branded its pictures as a smattering of cute gags that never amount to a great movie.

Everything here feels like busywork for the characters, never giving them a chance to grow. The initial plot is that Gru’s old-school rival Maxime Le Mal (Will Ferrell with a lackluster French accent) wants revenge on Gru and apparently turn the world into cockroaches. Then the plot shifts to Gru and his family being in a witness protection program, leading to Lucy’s failure of being a hairstylist, two of the kids attending karate classes, and the oldest girl feeling awkward in a new school, her storyline almost entirely off screen. But, wait, there’s another baby in the house with Gru’s new son, leading to daddy antics. But, wait, the new neighbors harbor a teen villain in the making, Poppy (Joey King), who blackmails Gru into a heist. But, WAIT, the gibberish-spewing minions also have superpowers now.

If this all sounds like there’s too much going on here, that’s because there is. One might think this format would keep the jokes coming, but it slows them down to a crawl of dead-on-delivery jokes. So much exposition is piled on to establish the scenario and attempts at humor are devoid of even the most surface-level cleverness. There was a perfect opportunity for a Terminator 2 parody in the grocery store chase sequence, complete with astute music choices and a vengeful woman dashing like the T-1000. The entire bit is that she runs like the T-1000, wasting a perfect opportunity for her to use her high heels like those metal hook arms. I know you critique the movie you got and not the one you hoped for, but it’s hard not to fathom better bits when every attempt at comedy feels so wasted in the film’s mad dash to cram in as much crap as possible.

Perhaps speed is required to ensure audiences won’t be frustrated with the petering-out plots. But even if memory fails you, the climax of this film comes off like a desperate chucking of the kitchen sink at the screen. I never once got the impression that the crux of the picture was Gru’s baby learning to love his daddy. When was that ever in question beyond the baby’s typical, par-for-the-course pranks? More importantly, why is the onus on the baby to learn something? It’s such a bizarre choice for a finale, considering the film starts with Gru’s attempt to be more accepted and is then completely forgotten about halfway through the picture. Deja vu also sets in when the obligatory dance closing features another 1980s song, much like how the last film kept shoving out those dusty hits. The dance scene also throws all the previous Despicable Me and Minions villains onto the screen, hoping cameos can cover up the cracks in this film.

But the built-in audience is probably probing the more prominent question: Is it at least cute and funny? Even when lowering standards to Illumination’s usual level of scattershot humor, the answer is no. The superhero minions bits are tedious, to the point where even the script seems to be mocking superhero fatigue…while still featuring superhero tropes in the most tired way possible. Poppy seems like a solid rival on paper, considering she insults Gru’s age, but her Boomer-blasting flies in the face of her playing Dance Dance Revolution to DragonForce’s “Through the Fire and Flames,” a song older than the character. There’s even less effort put into the bodily fluid gags, where I nearly gave a reluctant smile over one of Gru’s kids commenting on goat shit. As for the cuteness? Let’s just say the film has to stop at several points for the characters to give an “aww” expression, coming off like canned laughter. Few were gushing or laughing in the youthful audience I saw this with. Even the comical citations are full of cobwebs, as with the referencing of honey badger memes, which I last remember being funny eight years ago.

Despicable Me 4 lowers the bar for a franchise already resting on its laurels. It’s almost a test to see how much further this saga can go when it lacks in nearly all growth and lets the off-color stitching of its patchwork plots all the more visible. The usually reliable silliness of the minions can only go so far and even their superpowered subplot isn’t enough to maintain this rickety assembly of a sloppy script. It’s a noisy mash of mindless mush in animated form, targeted as a summer family diversion where the highlight will be the air conditioning and popcorn more than anything on the screen. Anyone decrying the lack of better movies at the theater would do well not to lower their standards to this degree of soulless and forgettable animated storytelling.

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