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.
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.
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).
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