‘Despicable Me 4’ Basks in Being a Slapstick Dose of Oddball Entertainment 

Despicable Me 4” is a fresh celebration in goofy antics and the kind of manic, almost anarchic glee defined by Illumination’s trademark tiny yellow henchmen. It is true that this franchise has been a bit of a roller coaster. 2010’s original “Despicable Me” was a wonderful high point, daring to make an animated children’s film with the villain as the hero. The following sequels had weaker stories while the spinoff “Minions” movies are quirky little entertainments. “Despicable Me 4” isn’t groundbreaking but it is the better of the sequels, with never a boring frame. Plainly said, if you are not into this kind of movie already, you won’t be into this one. 

The plot kicks off at Lycée Pas Bon, a university for villains where former bad guy and alumni Gru (Steve Carell) drops in, still as an agent of the Anti-Villain League, to arrest Maxime (Will Ferrell). But Maxime escapes, powered by a super cockroach substance he has applied to himself, and an army of genetically-engineered roach servants. With his life now in danger, Gru is forced by the AVL to enter a witness protection program. The same applies to his family, wife and fellow agent Lucy (Kristen Wiig) and adoptive daughters, Edith (Dana Gaier), Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) and Agnes (Madison Skyy Polan). Oh, there’s also a new baby, Gru, Jr., who still refuses to say “daddy.” Two Minions come along but the rest are sent to AVL headquarters to become subjects for a major new project. For Gru and family, the switch is daunting since they have to move into a pristine suburban area where the neighbors are snobs. 

Family entertainment like this is almost made to provoke the high-nosed critics. “Despicable Me 4” has the freewheeling energy of a team just throwing funny gags around while making sure there’s some semblance of a story. It’s perfectly designed for younger audiences in the elementary school range. Chris Renaud, who directed the first two movies, returns and gives some grinning satire particular focus. With glossy aesthetic, Gru and the family’s new home is a suburban hell. The neighbors are Brentwood-style jerks who show off their country club credentials. Lucy is tasked with working at a hair salon, where she ruins the hair of a diva client who then chases her down a Whole Foods-type supermarket, shot in the literal style of “Terminator 2.” A pack of Minions are transformed into new superhero prototypes, the Mega Minions. They become a truly funny jab at Marvel and DC, clearly referencing the Fantastic Four, X-Men and Superman. Just imagine a buffoon with Cyclops’ eye beams. 

A lot of the comedy follows the usual “Despicable Me” spirit where the Minions giggle, slap and jump around like demented cousins of the Three Stooges, speaking in their unique garbling language. They get packed into a bus ride where the driver understandably loses his mind. But Renaud and team make sure to throw in enough slapped-together narrative. A nice point always made in these movies is that villains develop out of past experiences. Maxime can’t let go of a betrayal experienced with Gru when they were kids, during a school talent show. Some grudges really do last forever. Or there’s a moment like when Agnes wonders why it’s okay to lie when it comes to the family’s new identities in hiding. The neighbor’s teenage daughter, Poppy (Joey King), first appears to Gru like some eerie kid out of a Stephen King story. She’s desperate to attend Lycée Pas Bon and wants Gru’s help. Yet, the writing gives her more dimension and doesn’t get too cliché with where the story takes her.

The structure of “Despicable Me 4” isn’t perfect and none of the sequels match what made the original so special, but it’s still a deliriously oddball summer entertainment. The filmmakers are cheerfully making fun of everything from Botox to ossified college deans. Sofia Vergara voices Maxime’s girlfriend, Valentina, who demands a slushy on her cheat day. A trip to the supermarket means passing by cereal brands with names such as Skinny Bits, Fluffy, and Atomic Sugar Bombz. The animation has genuine liveliness and Pharrell Williams returns to contribute some good songs. His output for this franchise has always been quite impressive. His contribution to “Despicable Me 2,” “Happy,” was a global hit. “Despicable Me 3” may have been a weak entry, but Williams could still throw in a truly excellent song like “Freedom.” Here he delights in more wordplay and winks at the movie’s light take on criminality with a crowd pleaser like “Double Life.” 

Despite the Minions being the franchise’s big pull, they don’t become the complete focus of “Despicable Me 4.” We get our needed dose of their zaniness but in the end, this is almost a movie made entirely of rotating gags involving everyone. Did we need another of these? It depends. The franchise would have been fine without another title. But it is summertime, the temperatures are rising, the headlines are worrying, the presidential election has everyone on edge, wars are still raging. Is it so bad to then go escape with the little ones to chortle at a Mega Minion chomping on slot machine coins before saving the world? There are plenty of throwaway animated films made with a particular kind of factory cynicism. This one doesn’t have it. It is proud to be genuinely goofy.

Despicable Me 4” releases July 3 in theaters nationwide.