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Wacky Mayhem is Back in ‘Despicable Me 4’

Director Chris Renaud talks about Illumination’s latest entry in the biggest global animated franchise in history – and its storied brand of silly cartoon fun – as the first ‘Despicable Me’ film in 7 years hits theaters today, July 3.

What do you get when you combine the world’s most-loved supervillain-turned-Anti-Villain League-agent, the galaxy’s most popular yellow pill-shaped creatures, a new slimy nemesis and his femme fatale girlfriend, and a six-month-old baby determined to drive his dad over the edge?

Well, you get the first Despicable Me movie in seven years, and a bold new era of Minions mayhem. Starring Despicable veterans Steve Carrell, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Madison Polan, Pierre Coffin, and Steve Coogan, Illumination and Universal's Despicable Me 4 also features Will Ferrell as bad guy Maxime Le Mal, Sofia Vergara as his main squeeze, Valentina, and new characters, the Prescott family, voiced by Joey King, Stephen Colbert, and Chloe Fineman.

Despicable Me 4, directed by studio veteran Chris Renaud, co-directed by Patrick Delage, produced by Chris Meledandri and Brett Hoffman, and written by Mike White and Ken Daurio, hits theaters today, July 3, 2024.

We spoke with director Renaud, who has been with the franchise from the beginning, about the latest misadventures of Gru and his family, as well as his decade-plus journey through their madcap world.

But first, enjoy the trailer and a couple new clips from the film:

Dan Sarto: You first breathed life into this franchise way back in 2010. What do you think is the secret to the success of these characters and their stories that so resonates with audiences?

Chris Renaud: I think the world of Despicable Me has a few things that a lot of other franchises don't. One of the things is that they're humans, so they're sort of like us. We can do "relatable" stories. Thematically, they're all sort of about career versus family.

When we started, the one thing we were looking at is how can we be distinct in this marketplace, where so many wonderful things are being done by other studios? And what Pierre and Chris Meledandri and I quickly agreed on was to make a comedy with a Looney Tunes/Chuck Jones sensibility – physical comedy for comedy's sake. I came from Blue Sky and did a lot of work with the character of Scrat, [the saber-toothed squirrel in Ice Age], which was one of the first computer-animated characters to harness Looney Tunes in the CG space. So, taking that type character and expanding it into this whole character group in Despicable Me.

And of course, there's the Minions, which I think operate on several levels. There's a simplicity to their design, a universality to their language, and a love of their incompetence. All the elements just came together to create something that everybody can relate to. A friend of mine was visiting Belize and came back with a macrame Minion for me – unlicensed, of course. It just shows how universal the characters are and how they can be easily recreated and repurposed in fun ways.

So, it's a variety of elements. But, as we were doing it, the main thing that we were focusing on was cartoony humor – like the shark coming out of the manhole. It was one of the early scenes that kind of confirmed what we were doing. I think being able to go into that real cartoony place is a hallmark of these movies and their appeal.

DS: How did you come up with the story for the new film, and how do you ensure that you keep things fresh?

CR: The trick of course is maintaining what people like about the characters and the world, while delivering something new. This film started with the idea of the family leaving their house that we all know and love and moving to a new neighborhood. Then there’s the new villain that Gru is up against, who is also a former high school rival. That gives us a glimpse into Gru in high school and what that might've been like. There's also the introduction of Gru Jr., and the dynamic between Gru and this six-month-old baby gives us some fun new territory to investigate.

As far as keeping it fresh with the Minions, in DM 2 we had the evil Minions, in DM 3 the Minions were in jail, and here we've got the Mega Minions. We love putting Minions in costumes and transforming them. So, it's finding new ways to represent these characters visually.

DS: The characters and the fundamental situation are already inherently so funny that you don't really need that many hooks to hang a new story on.

CR: Right. A good example is Gru with the baby in that very first scene in the kitchen, where we see that the baby doesn't like Gru, and it's sort of instantly funny. Again, it has relatability. Almost everyone's had the experience of holding a baby that doesn't like them, which is kind of insulting, even though it's just a baby. It's not really something we saw with Gru and the girls. The baby only has this facial expression, which the guys animated beautifully. So, it gives you a completely different treatment of a kid that doesn't get along with Gru.

DS: I've always really liked the studio's design sensibility, which I refer to jokingly as the “pointy shoes, thin legs, Eurovision aesthetic.” What inspired the design of the new characters in the film and what, if anything, did you need to do with existing designs to bring them forward?

CR: We always go for a graphic simplicity to define the character. Maxime Le Mal has the big puffy coat, which is embroidered with little roaches – you have to look closely. And of course there’s his girlfriend, Valentina, who's like a straight line holding a dog. So, it's got this kind of graphic simplicity, but you instantly understand who they are. They look like they're going to the Met Gala or something.

As far as older characters, Vector, who had not appeared since the first film, was in a short that came out in front of Migration, so he had been updated. But, even for something as recent as DM 3, you have to update rigs, look at surfacing. Pretty much everything has to be tweaked. In the very last scene, I brought back McDade, Gru’s neighbor from the first film. In that case, it was so old, we just remodeled it. There are certain efficiencies, but not a lot when you're reaching way back into the past, because the technology is so different that you end up recreating stuff.

DS: For The Secret Life of Pets 2, you talked about how you engaged the animation team to help develop some of the more humorous elements, some of the physical gags. Can we assume that continued on this film?

CR: Absolutely. And on this film, I had Patrick Delage, a storied animator from Disney and Pixar, as the co-director, and he was brilliant. A lot of the really funny moments in the movie come out of animation testing – for instance, Poppy training on the Dance Dance Revolution video game, which was created when we were testing rigs. We approach animation testing as story, really. Of course, we do walk cycles and facial gyms and all that stuff, but we try to actually create these little moments, almost like tiny, short films that have a beginning and a middle and an end, just because it's more fun to watch and it stretches your brain as a creator or an animator.

So that Dance Dance Revolution sequence is testing out Poppy and how she moves and how she operates and how she interacts with her cat. It just was so much fun that we had to put it in the movie. The animator put the cat in there just because it's funny. And then, what was great about it from a story point of view, is when Gru goes up to the hideout, what do you do with the baby? Well, the baby does what babies do. He's chasing the cat the whole time.

DS: How long into the process does it take for you to be able to tell whether the physical gags are going to work or not?

CR: I think in some cases you get a good sense of things even in the storyboard process, but when these movies rely so heavily on comedy, it’s a little bit like creating a standup act. For example, if the setup's not right, then the joke doesn't quite work. We had a moment at the end of the bus scene where they throw a pie at Carl. We tried that 900 different ways, and the simple one is the one that ended up getting the laugh.

So beyond just feeling it's funny in boarding and animation, we test it with an audience to try to perfect it. Because you get so inside it when you've been watching it over and over, you can lose your sense of what's working. That's why I actually really like the preview process. As stressful as it may be, it's a good test of what's going to land and what isn't.

DS: I always ask you this at the end of our interviews – was making this movie any easier than the previous ones?

CR: No. We had COVID during the production, so that kind of threw us for a loop for a bit. Also, the production time was probably the longest, as we were trying to really make sure it was working well. We had a great story, a great foundation, but finding the cartoony took a while. I mean, it took place in a very normal neighborhood, and the first version of the villain was very straightforward. So, finding ways to make it feel like a Despicable Me movie was the main challenge.

I hate to say it, but I think if it ever feels easy, it probably means you're doing something wrong. I can't imagine that anybody at any studio would ever say, "Oh yeah, that was easy." For any film you enjoy, or an audience enjoys, there's always a lot of blood on the road.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.