Review: 'Despicable Me 4' swirls with overplotted mania and should prove distracting enough

“Despicable Me 4” should come with a subtitle: “The Kitchen Sink.” That’s because this latest installment of Illumination’s mega-grossing animated franchise jams in a grab-bag of physical and visual gags and anything-goes action, plus a barrage of narrative dead ends, subplots and characters, as it strains to fill its 90 or so minutes of eye-popping, brain-draining mayhem.

Despite a few chuckles, some capable voice work and plenty of splashy color, it proves a largely empty and exhausting ride.

It’s doubtful that the average viewer — initiated or new to the series — will be able to recount a fully coherent summary of the film’s whirling-dervish plot, penned by Ken Daurio (a writer on all the “Despicable” entries) and Mike White (“The White Lotus”). The convoluted story won’t stop families from lining up for this one, but be forewarned.

Said plot involves “Despicable” series star Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), that lovably hapless, curiously accented supervillain-turned-hero (he of the ovoid head and woodpecker-like nose), who’s forced into a sort of witness protection program after running afoul of his old childhood nemesis, the uber-evil Maxime Le Mal (Will Ferrell). Le Mal, a eurotrashy Frenchman with an equally wicked and flamboyant girlfriend (an underused Sofia Vergara), has vowed revenge against Gru and his family, so steps must be taken. Although the origin story for their longtime feud is sure to go over the heads of any small fries in attendance, it’s hardly the stuff of do-or-die wars. But whatever.

Gru’s Anti-Villain League (AVL) boss, Silas Ramsbottom (Steve Coogan), whose own head resembles a malleable eggplant, sets up Gru and his family — plucky wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig), also an AVL agent; trio of adopted young daughters and feisty baby son — in the idyllic town of Mayflower under assumed identities. Gru becomes a solar panel salesman named Chet Cunningham. Lucy now must go by “Blanche” and, despite zero tonsorial talent, work as a hairstylist (a labored story segue with little payoff).

There are neighbors: super-snooty, swoop-jawed car dealer Perry (Stephen Colbert), his socialite wife, Patsy (Chloe Fineman), and their teen daughter, Poppy (Joey King). The latter, an evildoer-in-training, quickly susses out Gru’s true identity and blackmails him into a dicey heist at Gru and Le Mal’s alma mater, the imposing Lycée Pas Bon, a high school for villains. The result is another haywire set piece and the theft of an erratic honey badger.

What else? Well, Le Mal can turn himself into a giant, ultra-destructive cockroach because why not? Gru’s two youngest daughters join a karate class led by an inexplicably hostile sensei (Brad Abelson). Oh, and Gru ends up over his head in a tennis game with Perry and his country club friends but eventually shows them all who’s boss — to no great avail.

There’s a kidnapping (not the first in this series); a school principal in a wheelchair that transforms into a kind of monster truck; and a death-defying (read: consequence-free) climactic battle that feels Looney Tunes-ridiculous even for a movie like this.

Much more is stuffed into the proceedings, including the franchise’s famed Minions, those yellow, gibberish-babbling, capsule-shaped little pranksters (all voiced by their co-creator, Pierre Coffin), who largely exist to assist Gru. Yet they’re used here more as a chaotic diversion than any vital plot propeller.

While Coogan’s Ramsbottom injects five of the creatures with a special serum that affords them a nutty array of superhero-like powers, the rest of the Minions are stuck at Gru’s house where they’re continually at odds with a vending machine. Whatever their purpose in “4,” they remain yappy, annoying and rambunctious — even if the mighty, so-called Mega Minions can now (ineptly) decimate a city.

Directed by Illumination veteran Chris Renaud (the first two “Despicable Me” films, “The Lorax” and both “Secret Life of Pets” movies are all his), one can’t fault the movie’s speedy pace. The picture may be wearying, but it’s rarely boring. (Patrick Delage is credited as co-director.)

On the music front, Heitor Pereira returns to provide the film’s effective, at times eclectic score. Pharrell Williams’ past “Despicable” themes are reprised, plus Williams wrote and performs the catchy new original song “Double Life.” There are also several fun needle drops and a lively, late-breaking use of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

A tremendous amount of craft, talent, resources and, no doubt, affection goes into a film like this, all of which can’t be overlooked. One just wishes the final product evolved the series into something smarter and more dimensional and offered perhaps a timelier, more meaningful message for family audiences. Well, there’s always “Despicable Me 5.”

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