Producers: Chris Meledandri and Brett Hoffman  Director: Chris Renaud and Patrick Delage   Screenplay: Mike White and Ken Daurio   Cast: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Pierre Coffin, Joey King, Miranda Cosgrove, Stephen Colbert, Sofía Vergara, Steve Coogan, Chris Renaud, Madison Polan, Dana Gaier, Chloe Fineman, Laraine Newman, Brad Ableson, John DiMaggio, Audrey Lamy, June Squibb and Will Ferrell   Distributor: Universal Pictures

Grade: C

After a disarmingly amusing 2010 beginning, the “Despicable Me” franchise settled into comfortable mediocrity with the second installment of 2013 and the third in 2017, in the process branching out into other media and, in particular, voraciously exploiting the potential of its breakout stars, the babbling yellow Minions.  This latest feature continues in that vein.  Like its immediate predecessors, it adds characters to an already overcrowded mix, diminishing the focus with each new arrival and making for a lumpy, unwieldy whole.  The result is a muddled, episodic brew in which the laughs are sporadic at best and long dry spells dominate.  It’s the second animated disappointment from Mike White, whose “Migration” was visually pretty but narratively wan.

The overarching premise of the screenplay devised by White and his collaborator Ken Daurio (a veteran, with his partner Cinco Paul, of the previous three movies), is a fish-out-of-water scenario.  Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), the reformed arch-villain now happily married to Lily (Kristen Wiig) with a trio of adopted daughters, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Madison Polan), and infant son Gru Jr.  Now an agent of the Anti-Villain League run by Silas Ramsbottom (Steve Coogan), he’s given an assignment he relishes—to attend the reunion of his Class of 1985 at Lycée Pas Bon, the training ground for would-be super-villains, and arrest his erstwhile classmate and schoolboy nemesis Maxime La Mal (Will Ferrell).

The arrest comes immediately after the preening Maxime has been awarded a prize in recognition of an outstanding career by the place’s headmistress Übelschlecht (June Squibb) and has announced how he’s triumphed in his research on cockroaches by becoming half-human, half-roach himself.  Dragged off to prison, Maxime vows revenge on Gru, and when he escapes with help from his army of cockroaches and his femme fatale girlfriend Valentina (Sofía Vergara), Silas puts Gru and his family in a witness protection program; they’re relocated with new identities to the pastel-colored suburban town of Mayflower.  Three Minions accompany them as security, but mostly serve as stooges in slapstick routines.

Ensconced in their new home the family have a panoply of “adventures” that are, for the most part, comedically rather limp.  Gru, dressed incongruously in khakis and polo shirt in the guise of solar panel salesman Chet Cunningham, tries to make friends with his snooty neighbor Perry Prescott (Steven Colbert), whose wife Patsy (Carol Fineman) impulsively invites him to play tennis with her husband at their country club.  The game becomes chaotic thanks to the intervention of a Minion serving as an impromptu, definitely partisan, line judge.

More importantly, the Prescotts’ snarky daughter Polly (Joey King) uncovers Gru’s real identity and, aspiring to become a supervillainess, insists that he help her steal Lycée Pas Bon’s mascot, a “ferocious” honey badger.  An elaborate heist sequence with Übelschlecht intervening follows.

Meanwhile Lily causes a disaster when, as a supposed hair dresser, she ruins the cheveux of imperious Melora (Laraine Newman), who subsequently, her head wrapped in a turban, tries to chase down Lily and the girls in a manic chase through a supermarket.  Then there’s a scene in a dojo where the nasty sensei (Brad Ableson) berates sweet Agnes for not admitting to her false name, Britney, and she and her sisters retaliate.

As for the remaining Minions, they’re shipped off to AVL headquarters by Silas, who uses advanced technology to turn five of them into superheroes modeled, despite the numerical difference, on the Fantastic Four.  This wrongheaded subplot requires extended footage of the dimwitted fivesome causing chaos through the use of their powers.

Finally both Maxime and Übelschlecht converge on the family’s “safe house,” the latter to retrieve her badger and the former to kidnap Gru Jr. and turn him into a half-cockroach, taking vengeance on Gru by stealing what he loves best.  Gru, who’s been struggling to get Junior to like him throughout the movie, finally bonds with the kid in the battle with Maxime (everybody literally goes “Aw!” at the sight of them hugging), and all ends well—though what’s to become of those ill-considered Mega Minions is left up in the air. 

There are a few bright moments here, but more that fall flat.  Gru and Maxime’s song contests (using “Karma Chameleon” back in the eighties and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” in a present-day finale) come off as a mere appeal to nostalgia.  The script succumbs to the potty humor obligatory in today’s “family” movies early on, when Agnes’s sweet little pet lamb misunderstands her command to “Sit.”  And while Colbert catches the smarminess of Perry, Ferrell is surprisingly unfunny, just shouting out uninspired dialogue; and no one could have rescued an especially misguided scene in which Maxime uses his transformative power on a redneck gas station attendant–it’s ugly and borderline scary rather than amusing.  (Happily, the roaches themselves largely disappear after the early reels.)  As to the great mass of Minions–only eight of them, the three stooges and the five super-sized ones, get much screen time—apart from a messy sequence in which they’re driven to AVL headquarters by an irate bus driver (John DiMaggio), they’re pretty much ignored.

On the plus side, kids under ten will probably overlook the weakness of the material and just enjoy the color and energy provided by the Illumination animation team headed by Pierre-François Duhamel, directors Chris Renaud and Patrick Delage, and editor Tiffany Hillkurtz; more tolerant adults might as well.  The voice work is mostly solid. Carell obviously relishes doing Gru’s Eastern European accent, though Farrell’s French one is as monotonous as his shouting.  Other turns range from Vergara’s amusingly blasé villainess to Wiig’s blandly chipper Lily, while Coogan hams it up royally as Gru’s obtuse boss and King nails Polly’s snarky undertone.  And after “Thelma” Squibb seems to leap at the chance of playing sheer nastiness as Übelschlecht.  The background score by Heitor Pereira does its job without being at all memorable.

At a time when familiar franchises continue to dominate moviegoing habits, with only rare exceptions, “Despicable Me 4” will doubtless be a hit.  But especially in comparison to more imaginative animated fare, it feels tired and formulaic, draggy despite a mercifully brief running-time.  Familiarity might not breed contempt, but it does invite a degree of boredom.