Illumination Entertainment, Opinions, Studios

The Problem with Illumination Entertainment

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Introduction

Illumination Entertainment has a problem. Allow me to clarify that statement.

Illumination Entertainment has absolutely no problem with making hit animated films. After Despicable Me 2 nearly topped a billion dollars at the box office back in 2013, I don’t think that anyone will be able to dispute that on any plausible grounds. They also have no problem with taking a simple concept and a modest budget and translating that into a hugely successful franchise.

Putting all of that aside, Illumination Entertainment does have a problem. One big, glaring flaw in their otherwise rock-solid formula for making an animated film.

The storytelling.

A Film-by-Film Analysis

Very soon, the studio will have no more than five films under its belt (Minions comes out next month). But for now, let’s look at the four films that are already out and determine exactly why the storytelling in their films isn’t as strong is it can be.

Despicable Me

The first Despicable Me can be considered (to some degree) their best film, story-wise. It’s not the most original of concepts and it gets distracted by its own side-gags and other things that just don’t add up to anything (a flaw that gets worse later on), but for the most part it has a solid arc that we follow through from start to finish (the transformation of Gru from super-villain to caring dad).

Hop

Things go downhill considerably when we look at Hop, Illumination’s first live-action/CG-hybrid and their attempt to get in on the box-office money generated by other films of its type. To put it in as nice a manner as possible, the story is noting to write home about. It’s your standard ‘rebelling against tradition’ story with a lukewarm take on the Easter Bunny myth wrapped around it (see Rise of the Guardians for a more imaginative interpretation of the Easter Bunny).

Simply put, it’s all the things that would probably annoy you if you aren’t a fan of most live-action/CG-hybrids.

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax

But believe it or not, it’s Illumination’s adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax where the quality of the storytelling truly reaches its nadir.

Asides from a complete misunderstanding of the original book’s message (one line from the book even gets mocked in-universe during the movie), all the flaws that would come to define the storytelling in an Illumination film are crystallized here. Weak plotting, thin characterization, a middle section that trails off into nowhere, and gags that take up more screen-time than they realistically should. All of it then gets topped off by the most blatant usage of outdated feature animation tropes (the dance sequence at the end).

I think I can confidently say (without any hesitation) that The Lorax is Illumination at their worst.

Despicable Me 2

Things get a little better in Despicable Me 2. In contrast to The Lorax, the film mostly stays on its story points. But even then, there’s a point (sometime after Gru teams up with Lucy Wilde) where the story starts to trail off again. This can mostly be attributed to the increased focus on the Minions and their antics (as amusing as some of them are). Things pick back up when the film remembers that it had a main villain and promptly sprints toward a climax that wraps up in the way that you would expect from a Despicable Me film (with Gru and Lucy hooked up in the most rushed way possible).

What Exactly is Wrong?

After examining these four films and the flaws that are present throughout, I have developed a theory as to why they don’t put as much effort into their scripts as they do their marketing.

They don’t try hard enough. Not because they can’t, but because they appear to carry the impression that they don’t have to try hard. So long as there is a simple concept that they can stitch a story around, they can get by without putting in any real effort on the story side.

This almost makes the weaknesses of the storytelling a side-effect of their philosophy for making an animated film, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The LEGO Movie has a very tightly written and brilliantly executed storyline and it was made on a relatively modest budget of $60 Million (that’s actually a little less than the standard budget of an Illumination film). That alone proves that a good story doesn’t have to be sacrificed in the name of keeping the costs down.

A Glimpse of Hope

With all that being said, I really, really believe that Illumination has it within them to do better with their storytelling. Even with all of my criticisms, I have the utmost faith in Illumination that they can go above and beyond. Hence why I think Minions could signify a turnaround in this area (big or small). The reason why I say that is because I personally think Illumination made an interesting choice by handing the movie over completely to Puss in Boots scribe Brian Lynch (as opposed to their regular scripting duo of Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio).

As some people have observed in the most recent trailer, there is a certain edge to the humor that wasn’t really present in previous Despicable Me films. Earlier trailers even go out of their way to show us the background and origins of the Minions themselves. That alone says to me that there’s a little more effort being brought forth than usual for this film, and that a good deal of it has to do with Brian’s writing and willingness to have the humor and physical comedy feel more adult (for lack of a better word) than previous offerings.

Minions isn’t Brian’s first go-around with Illumination. He also co-wrote Hop with Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio. I’m not too sure about which portion of the film felt like Brian’s work and which portion was the work of Paul and Daurio (not that I’d want to find out again), but even in Hop, there were several ideas that could have been the basis for a much better movie, but with three different hands on the script (and the fact that Ken and Daurio appear to work best with each other), that film never materialized. Oddly enough, this wasn’t a problem with Puss in Boots, where Brian also worked with two other writers (Tom Wheeler and Will Davies).

The next film from Illumination, The Secret Life of Pets, will see Brian teaming up with Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio once again. Surprisingly enough, the overall response to the complete footage (shown at CinemaCon) was positive. Hopefully that’s a sign that the collaboration between the three won’t result in another Hop.

A Time to Step Up

At one time or another, each animation studio had to step up and really prove their capability for great storytelling to go along with having top-notch animation, and Illumination is no different. My hope for them is that a project will come along that brings out the best of their qualities and ups their storytelling in a way that redefines them. Something that shows that there is more to the studio’s output than a simple concept and a super-effective marketing campaign.

They’ve gotten by on being decent (even good), but I think a time will come (eventually) when they will have to step up and show what they are really capable of when they become great.

What do you think? Are you in agreement with the assessment above? Any thoughts on how Illumination can improve their storytelling?

Edited by: Morgan Stradling

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About Brandon Smith

Brandon is your average nerd with a love for nerdy things (games, comics, anime/manga, etc.). He also loves reading and writing and plans to be an author someday. For now, he writes with passion and curiosity about the world of animation. He lives with his family in North Carolina and is currently attending college.
  • Matthew

    I got to say that it’s definitely hard for me to watch an animated film that isn’t made by Disney. Maybe because I love Disney so much, but I wouldn’t consider myself a fanboy since I agree Disney had had some misses with animation.

    But I’ve seen plenty of other animated films, Despicable Me, The Simpsons, The Lorax, Shrek, etc etc. To me no other animation studio will have the storytelling and charm that Disney and Pixar so openly has. So I do agree with this article.

  • Emmet

    Do you really think the LEGO Movie has a good story?
    I’m an AFOL and it was very weird to see a movie about not using glue on your bricks and minifigures but that’s the only way to display them in stores or in LEGOLAND!
    I never do that though. I only liked the movie because of all the characters involved and the LEGO worlds but the story is bad, in my opinion.
    Despicable Me 1 and 2 are funny, and sometimes you need to watch non Disney•Pixar movies.

    • brandon

      Well, clearly you and I are of different opinions.

      The LEGO Movie was not simply written to be an advertisement of LEGO. It had (as others pointed out) a great message about creativeness and imagination, packed along with brilliant characters and deft pacing. Also, the most perfect execution of pop culture jokes and references I’ve seen in any animated film.

      But that’s just my opinion.

  • tt

    Thank you! I keep telling people this, but they’re all entranced by the minions that its impossible to get this point across!
    I found no appeal for both Despicable Me films aside from Minions. They have paper thin plotlines and rushed characterization of every single character. The animation is OK, and that’s it. Blue Sky and Illumination have the same problem and they should fix it. Their new movies seem to be such an indication, but I’m still doubtful.

    • brandon

      Blue Sky has been improving. I liked Epic (even to the point of finding it slightly unappreciated) and I’m looking forward to The Peanuts Movie.

      • Baymax

        I agree.

      • John

        The only problem I have with Blue Sky is that they make too many pointless Ice Age sequels

  • Mack

    As far as movies go, The Lorax is no Horton Hears a Who, but thankfully, it’s no Cat in the Hat either. At least the songs are catchy.

    • brandon

      I can definitely think of a few animated films that are far worse than The Lorax, but even then it’s still Illumination’s worst film to date.

  • Baymax

    Ugh. Thank you Brandon!!! For years, I tried to tell my friends, then I tried to tell this website, and they never gave a crap. But when I saw this article, my face lit up and I was happy someone brought this issue for the whole world to hear. This company cares more about $, than effort, and that doesn’t feel right. A good example of effort in animation is when don bluth mortgaged his home just to get the secret of nimh made. It feels like BnL. They want $ from obese, slothish citizens and put no effort into food, lifestyle, ect. What would make BnL a good company is if the showed the Axiom a healthy way of living. Well, the first bnl example is illumination in a way. This adds up too…
    I HATE ILLUMINATION!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!>:z
    Tnks Brandon, I’ve always been inspired by you

  • Tory

    I think it depends on a person’s perspective of what makes a good story. But I agree I think Illumination Entertainment is making a bad move in milking the minions franchise. Because sooner or later, or most likely within the next five years that popularity is going to dwindle. Much like Dreamwork’s Shrek.

    In all honesty I think in it’s hey day Don Bluth made better movies than Disney in terms of story. So did Ghibli studios.

  • Yeah, the Lorax was a terrible adaptation. I’m glad someone on this site was brave enough to admit it.

  • cetrata

    I found the despicable me films to be great and even found lorax to be a guilty pleasure (never saw hop, looked like crap).

    The same problems you bought up can also be applied to blue sky studios. They do have great potential and their animation quality is top notch. The problem is that they spend more money on celebrities (even if the roles are merely cameos) then they do on great screenwriters. The rio films are good enough due to animation and the songs but the stories were underwhelming. Epic was also good due to the animation and some of the characters but needed a strong story. Same thing with robots. And the Ice age sequels, ugh, they just get worse and worse with each film. Started off good and then went on a downhill (maybe a slight bump in the third film but the 4th was the low point.)

    • hellosanfransokyo

      I have to agree- Epic and Robots are Blue Sky at their best. I wasn’t a big fan of Lorax the first time I saw it, but I rewatched it last summer and found it pretty enjoyable. I did like the song at the end, and I’m gonna sound like I fell for the cash-grab casting, but hey, Taylor Swift is the queen.
      Your opinion on Hop is pretty accurate too, I was forced to watch it during school and kind of died.

      • Baymax

        Oh, I forgot to tell you this: the first movie my brother saw in the movie theatre was Hop. He ran up and down the stairs, and ate so much candy he got sick and puked.

        Blue Sky used to be my favorite, but I still have a place for it in my heart. The Rio films are sorta a guilty pleasure for me. Wanna see Robots.

        If you wanna see my opinion on hop, I never finished the movie, but from what I saw, even as a dumb kid who would even be entertained by watching a brick for ten hours, the movie was very stupid and boring from what I remember.

        • hellosanfransokyo

          Ouch. Not a great first movie experience, I imagine. We never finished Hop either, but about halfway through I just basically went “nah” and pulled out a notebook and started to draw. Because I was (and still am) that weird kid who draws.
          And you should check out Robots. It’s got Robin Williams and some pretty cool scenery (especially the city, from what I remember.)

          • Baymax

            You mean Mel Brooks

  • Margaret

    I think its very interesting how a good premise can get lost in the details. The lorax and Despicable me (1 & 2 ) stand out to me as premises that could have easily been on point with a disney/dreamworks/pixar film.
    We’ve seen many movies that had no effort put in and tanked, but what stands out about the Illumination movies is that theyre very….safe. They dont challenge you, they dont make you think. they just are. And theres nothing wrong with that, there is a place for that in cinema, but the problem arises when you squander wonderful premises on that type of film. I wonder what films we might have had if these movies were done by disney/dreamworks/pixar (or the writers therein)

    Love these editorial articles btw.

  • Alex in Wonderland

    Totally agree. Illumination has stressed its commitment to keeping film budgets low in the past, and sub par storytelling has been a side effect. I feel that because they are trying to keep costs low, they aren’t giving their stories optimal time to develop like some of the other studios do (Disney, Pixar, you get the picture). In the end, they try to fill the gaps with easier, more gimmicky stuff. However, gimmicks can only do so much. If they want to last, they are going to have to focus a bit more on story quality.

    One of my economics professors once told our class that education is an incredibly inefficient process by nature because the more time the learning process is given, the better it works. I see storytelling in a similar light. The more thought and time that goes into it, the better it is typically going to be. If Illumination’s main goal continues to be being as efficient as possible, story is going to continue to suffer.

    There is a reason why Disney and Pixar have such strong legacies. They have given in to the inefficiencies of storytelling because they have discovered that in the long run, quality is king. Despicable Me was a lucky franchise, and not bad by any means. However, if Illumination wants to survive and thrive in such a competitive environment, I would advise that they step it up in the future.

    • Baymax

      I agree totally

    • And Pixar excels at creative storytelling. It’s something that Illumination could learn from.

  • Tim Tran

    Thank you! I keep telling people this, but they’re all entranced by the minions that its impossible to get this point across!
    I found no appeal for both Despicable Me films aside from Minions. They have paper thin plotlines and rushed characterization of every single character. The animation is OK, and that’s it. Blue Sky and Illumination have the same problem and they should fix it. Their new movies seem to be such an indication, but I’m still doubtful.

    • brandon

      You and tt said the same thing. Double post?

      • Tim Tran

        Yup oops. I couldn’t seem to log in with Facebook account, when in reality I already did and double posted. Sorry.

  • Magenta White

    The Despicable Me films are good, but I did notice that the story could have been better with how they handled the three girls.

  • Max den Hartog

    I actually kind of like Illumination Entertainment. So far they’ve released 4 films and I absolutely loved 2 of those films. I’m also really looking forward to some of their upcoming films like Minions and the film about pets. In this comment section I see a lot of comparison to Blue Sky Studios and I personally think Illumination Entertainment is much better. Blue Sky has released 9 animated features so far and only 3 of those were really good, a few mediocre ones and all the other ones were really bad, and their upcoming lineup of films doesn’t look too good either with yet another Ice Age film in production at the moment. Illumination Entertainment released its first film 5 years ago and can still learn a lot while Blue Sky has been around since 2002 and hasn’t improved much.

    • brandon

      One of the rare voices of support for Illumination on the website, I see.

      • Baymax

        Max, I hate to disagree, but, I HATE ILLUMINATION!!!!!!!!!!!!!

        • brandon

          I think it would be wiser to direct that comment towards Max than to me.

        • Max den Hartog

          Well, you’re aloud to have that opinion and I respect your opinion but if you feel the need to comment, at least give some valid arguments why you feel this way. Just saying ‘I HATE ILLUMINATION!!!!!!!!!!!!!’ doesn’t really add anything to this conversation.

  • brandon

    UPDATE: apparently there was a whole paragraph missing from the article that realted to minions.

    Edited the article include it, but here it is:

    “With all that being said, I really, really believe that Illumination
    has it within them to do better with their storytelling. Even with
    all of my criticisms, I have the utmost faith in Illumination that
    they can go above and beyond. Hence why I think Minions could
    signify a turnaround in this area (big or small). The reason why I
    say that is because I personally think Illumination made an
    interesting choice by handing the movie over completely to Puss in
    Boots scribe Brian Lynch (as opposed to their regular scripting
    duo of Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio).”

  • brandon

    I already have. We all have our disagreements, but please keep it civil.

  • Landon Kemp

    Illumination is pretty mediocre, as far as animation studios go. I’ve only seen two of their films to date: Despicable Me and The Lorax.

    Despicable Me was alright. The Lorax was, and still is, a letdown for me. Ted and Audrey are a bore, most of the songs are pointless, annoying and somehow forgettable, the villain is unnecessary, making The Once-Ler a human was a big mistake, and its overuse of zany Hollywood production values and cliche paint-by-the-numbers storytelling elements kinda undermine the anti-corporate message of the book. Though I do give points for the animation and Danny DeVito’s portrayal of The Lorax and some of the humor, but overall, it’s definitely not that good a film.

    So yeah, I think Illumination really needs to step up its game if it’s going to survive, because people are going to get tired of the same old schtick.

    • brandon

      Which is why I have my hopes for Minions. It might not be a game changer, but it looks like they’re trying a bit harder this time about.

      While we won’t know how good Minions might not be until it hits theaters, I would definitely want them to have Bryan Lynch work on their screenplays more often (and preferably without the lending hands of Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio around).

  • Fluffydips

    I’ve seen Minions, it’s a game changer. It’s almost Pixar tier

    • brandon

      I’d hate to make you think that I don’t believe you, but is this legit in anyway (early showing, private screening, etc).

      And if it is, could it be possible to tell how this could be a ‘game changer’ for Illumination (without spoilers, of course).

      • Fluffydips

        It has a better than usual plot. There is actual emotion. It has that extra bit of wonder that The Lego Movie gave us last year. Also, early test screening.

        • Baymax

          Yes, this looks interesting. Not like those kiddie fauder movies. This actually has a bit of sexual humor. Also, it boggles my mind that this takes place in 1968 (B.G), that they have technology we haven’t even made yet.

          • Fluffydips

            I have yet to see Inside Out, but those two could be tied for best animated feature.

          • Manuel Orozco

            In my book, Inside Out and Peanuts Movie are tied for Best Animated Feature of 2015. Minions was entertaining but didn’t turn out like I thought it would.

          • Jeremiah

            For me, at this point Illumination is a money empire that distracts from a market with some really promising, more daring movies with really generic, kiddish movies. Which would be kinda fine… except they just have no interest in being ambitious, in ever taking a risk and really achieving something. It just gets you down when Kubo loses dough and they pump out Pets and make a money mountain.

          • Manuel Orozco

            Whatever you say

  • Kidan Abreha

    Honestly, Despicable Me is the best Illumination movie for me and Hop and Lorax are guilty pleasures for me and Despicable Me 2 I liked it when it first came out and I got it on DVD for Christmas but I just wish that Gru would end up alone raising the girls with the minions and Dr.Nefario instead of a love intrest but hey that’s their problem not mine.

  • Andrew

    Before reading this article, I had the opinion Hop was easily Illumination’s worst film and Lorax was second. But now… maybe I feel a little differently. As dull, flat and unfunny as Hop was, it wasn’t an adaptation of a (semi-)beloved property (for the record, I was immediately hooked by The Lorax when I read it the first time). I agree completely about the mocking of that one line from the book – add to that the “HAHA, HE’S SHORT!” bad guy, the lazy cliche of turning the Once-ler’s family into redneck stereotypes, turning all of the Truffula Valley (which did look well-rendered, granted) creatures into Minion knock-offs, and hammering its message, in stark black-and-white form unlike the book, down the viewer’s throat with the subtlety of a wrecking ball (also, “It’s called PHOTOSYNTHESIS!” Ugh…) Hop may be bad, but at least it wasn’t a bad adaptation, just a lazy attempt at a modern holiday-themed film.

    • Baymax

      That is right. I haven’t seen that movie since it came out, I’m ten now, so I was seven then, and when I was seven, I was as dumb as a brick.

  • Yeah its storytelling really does suck and needs some work agreed, but I didn’t mind Lorax when I first saw it since well I didn’t know what to expect and plus I wasn’t such a huge animation fan when it came out but now that I am one now, it has MAJOR flaws but I call it a guilty pleasure for me sometimes since its hilarious to look at the stupidity
    But yeah I so hope this company get better in the long run!

  • Tiffany Golden

    Did he seriously post an opinion as fact in an article?
    Wow, someone didn’t listen in writing class….
    Despicable Me 2 was the Number 3 box office gross behind Frozen & Iron Man 3….
    I think that speaks way more than the opinion of this writer.

  • Mskevinagosh

    illumination should stay out animation because minions and illumination is a very bad because its teach kids bad stuffs and BULLYING .The ghostbusters is better then pats because its teach how work together . minions are bad role model for kids . minion fans are very rude to me . I think there to many minion fans . the minions are not very good for kids any more . I was a minion fan but i love ghostbusters because they have better role model for me . The ghost in ghostbusters IS more cuter then minions because he do not show his but that good i love it .I grow up as ghostbusters fan . mine Kevin the minion tattoo does not mean any to me because i,m a ghostbusters fan and Naruto fan and Miami dolphins fan . save the animation to cartoon network and Sony . DESPICABLE ME WAS THE WORST MOVIE In the world . i think the best movie S is ghostbusters , osmosis jone , draft day , the Lego movie ,Naruto, Regular show THE MOVIE, finding Dory , BFG ,Madagascar
    I what ghostbusters more stuffs out indited of minion stuffs because ghostbusters are hotter then minions . The ghost in ghostbusters is very cutie !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    BFG WAS better then pats and minions . love one ghostbusters fan . i find out Kevin the minion is big jerk . mine new love interest is the ghostbusters !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Letard

      Your comparisons are odd. I agree “Despicable Me” teaches kids bad manner, but then you saying your best movies up there is not comparable in the opposite reason. IMHO, Disney is more kid-friendly than Illumination. When I see a Disney movie, I find it harder to see bad behavior example and I’m sure they put a lot of efforts in guaranteeing it to be so.

  • bon

    Illumination Entertainment is Illuminati confirmed.

  • Josh King

    Boy you are prescient. The low quality has continued with Minions and Pets, and Sing does not look good

    • Manuel Orozco

      Sing in my opinion is the best film Illumination has done so far tied with Despicable Me 2.

  • Manuel Orozco

    I’ve seen all of Illuminations work except Hop. Despicable Me 2 has to be their best feature yet. The original Despicable Me, Minions, The Lorax and the Secret Life of Pets are on par with each other. Illumination has that big sense of color and whimsy we expect these days in animation. However, someday they will reach Pixar’s heights if they can create more great movies.

  • Just Passing By

    Illumination would’ve been great, if they don’t waste their characters with its thin characterization and most of them don’t even have a character development.