(WRITER’S NOTE #1: This article is coming out much later than intended, due to the writer’s personal obligations. Nonetheless, the writer intends to publish this article for the readers who haven’t read up on this news elsewhere.)
(WRITER’S NOTE #2: The writer is also aware of a certain development that occurred recently, involving Universal/Comcast’s purchase of a certain studio. The original article remains unedited, but feel free to discuss this event in the comments below.)
At this year’s CinemaCon, Chris Meledandri wanted to let the attendees know one thing about his animation company Illumination Entertainment: love them or loathe them, they are here to stay.
Indeed, the Illumination portion was one of the clear highlights of Universal Studios’ presentation. Meledandri, the founder and CEO of the NBCUniversal-owned company was on hand at the presentation to lift the veil on their upcoming projects, which included this year’s offerings (The Secret Life of Pets and Sing) in addition to next year’s attractions.
Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch
You’ve already heard by now, in what may be one of the best casting decisions Illumination has ever made, that Benedict Cumberbatch will provide his voice for the title character of Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch. Along with releasing a teaser image of the title character, Meledandri also teased the audience with some very, very early bird footage of the movie. Keep in mind, the Pete Candeland/Yarrow Cheney co-directed feature doesn’t bow until November 10, 2017, so what was shown at CinemaCon basically amounted to a few animation tests.
Elaborating on the film some more, Meledandri characterized the film as a subtle departure from previous adaptations of the book.
“What we’ve set out to do with this telling of the Grinch is make it both modern and traditional at the same time,” Meledandri told Deadline. “When I say that I mean from a traditional standpoint, we’ve really tried to go back to what we perceive as the essence of what Ted Geisel was communicating. What I love about his work is that at the center of it, of all of his stories, are very, very simple and universal ideas. The last telling of the Grinch focused a little bit more on the commercialization of Christmas and how the commercialization of Christmas can lead us down the wrong path.”
“For me, in reading what Geisel wrote, I view it more from a character perspective. I think that the essence of this film is the notion of this cynicism comedically expressed in the Grinch and this absolute innocence represented in Cindy Lou, on a collision course with one another through the course of this movie. It’s the simple question of whether or not innocence can transform cynicism. The beauty of that simplicity for me is what’s at the heart of the movie. In the experience of the movie I love the sort of wicked comedic aspect of this character the Grinch and I think that what you’ll see is from the very, very early animation tests, very raw, you’ll see that there’s an undeniable appeal in the character in spite of that kind of wicked persona, and I find that very, very, appealing and attractive.”
Meledandri also talked about the directors he hand-picked for the project. Pete Candeland makes his feature film debut with Grinch, while this marks Yarrow Cheney’s second directorial project with Illumination after co-directing The Secret Life of Pets: “Our choice in directors on one hand, Yarrow Cheney, who’s come up through our process of having been a production designer and now co-director and directed one of the sweetest shorts we ever made, called Puppy, combined with Pete Candeland who is really best known for his work co-directing all the animated Gorillaz videos. The modern and the traditional coming together. And I think our choice in voice will also immediately suggest the distinction of the film.”
Despicable Me 3
Grinch isn’t the only project that got an inside look. When Despicable Me 3 hits theaters in 2017, it will have been exactly seven years since the first Despicable Me came out in 2010. The question of whether or not the third film will serve as the closing act for Illumination’s tentpole franchise was not answered at any point during the presentation. But we can be assured that Gru, now a married man and a father of sorts, will need all the help he can get to face his newest and most challenging adversary.
South Park‘s Trey Parker has been cast as the film’s main villain, Balthazar Brat – an 80’s kid pop star turned bad. He stars in the film opposite Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig, who reprise their roles as Gru and Lucy Wilde respectively. We will also be introduced to another new character in the film – Gru’s blond-haired twin brother Dru (also voiced by Carell).
Pierre Coffin will return to co-direct, but it won’t be with his frequent Despicable Me directing partner Chris Renaud. Instead, Coffin will re-team with his Minions co-director Kyle Balda. Of course, both of them will work from a screenplay by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio.
Oh, and for those who are wondering, Illumination Entertainment isn’t done with the Minions just yet. More Minions, the aptly titled 10 minute short will debut in theaters as a Pixar-style prelude to The Secret Life of Pets.
Footage from The Secret Life of Pets and Sing
Speaking of which, there was plenty of footage form both Pets (10 minutes) and Sing (20 minutes) to go around. While there’s not much news to go off, out of the two films it was Sing that appeared to get the biggest and most positive response. As seen in the trailer, the footage shows various animals singing a number of pop hits as part of a singing contest held by Buster Moon, the operator of a struggling theater. In the footage, Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is singing Katy Perry’s “Firework”, while Johnny (Taron Egerton) sings with a silky, smooth voice (think Sam Smith).
Meledandri’s reflection on Illumination’s success
If this all sounds a bit like a self-congratulatory victory lap, then you wouldn’t be wrong. Illumination Entertainment has accomplished quite a lot in its eight years of existence. As Meledandri noted, “It was myself, an assistant, and a borrowed office, and today we’re over 800 people.”
What’s more, all five films released so far have grossed a collective $3.2 billion. A controversial success story of sorts, its box-office fortunes have been the subject of intensely divided discussion among animation circles, with critical and audience reception just as divisive. But if there is one aspect of Illumination Entertainment that is worthy of praise, it’s for the massive success that they have garnered in a field that’s typically dominated by the Big Three.
But for all of the success, Meledandri makes a point of keeping the company’s ambitions in check. In the past, suggestions were made that the company could become a mini-studio (similar to DreamWorks Animation) and eventually movie into live-action. Meledandri has since waved off these speculations, as he sees no real incentive to move away from what’s working. Time and time again, his films are able to attract big Hollywood talent (see above: Benedict Cumberbatch in Grinch). His small circle of writers and directors are able to lead an army of animators from one film to the next, with box-office domination all but guaranteed. To top it all off, he has one of the best marketing teams in the industry (see: Minions).
“I’m completely happy in the sandbox that I’m in, while reserving the right to be opportunistic, if I were to fall in love with something that happens to be live action,” Meledandri said. “It’s really more about an opportunity that might present itself. We’re very happy making the films that we’re making.”
There may come a day where Illumination will eventually have to address the flaws in its movie making system, but it might be a while before the critics find its Achilles’ heel. 2015 was Universal Pictures’ most profitable year at the box-office, and Minions played a huge part in that. “It remains very gratifying to just be part of the energy and the momentum surrounding this well-deserved, hard-earned success of last year and the interim steps that got them there,” Meledandri said. “Comcast and Steve Burke have been very supportive; Ron Meyer has been the constant, and the choice to bring Jeff in for his leadership but preserve the sort of creative excellence that Donna represents, these were very smart decisions that have continued to result in a company that is unbelievably supportive for somebody who’s trying to do what we do.”
Like I said up top, the opening statements have been made and its spot in an ever-changing sandbox has been marked. Illumination isn’t going anywhere.
What do you think? Are you looking forward to Illumination Entertainment’s future projects?
Edited by: Hannah Wilkes