A relatively young studio, Illumination Entertainment was founded in 2007 by Chris Meledandri. Meledandri had been President of 20th Century Fox Animation/Blue Sky and had supervised or executive produced Ice Age, its first sequel, Robots, and Horton Hears a Who! Melandadri was able to secure Universal as the parent company, with Illumination acting as their animation studio. Illumination bought French special effects company Mac Guff, which had provided animation for Despicable Me, and The Lorax. Meledandri was determined to run the studio different from his contemporaries. He sought to keep budgets small, not the usual over $100 million budget, by employing cost-cutting animation techniques. This is apparent with the budget of the first two features, Despicable Me and Hop, with budgets of $69 million and $63 million, respectively. The studio is still going strong today, thanks in part to their model of never going over $100 million in budget. Their parent company, NBCUniversal, was bought by Comcast in 2011, who in turn bought Dreamworks in 2016, effectively giving them two animation studios. Meledandri has control of both studios, but has not yet dissolved either of them. I imagine they won’t, just because people associate their franchises with the names Illumination and Dreamworks. If it was Illumination’s Shrek, it would probably cause chaos in the streets.
Illumination’s first movie, and undoubtedly their biggest cash cow, is Despicable Me. This is an interesting film, because at its core, it is a very sweet movie. On the other hand, it brought us minions, so you be the judge. Despicable Me was probably one of the strongest first films for a studio, outside of Disney and Dreamworks, with its good reviews and gigantic box office take of $543 million. It took the studio three years to come out with a sequel, Despicable Me 2, focusing on Gru becoming a good guy. While the reviews were not all good, it is still a solid movie in the series. For me, it’s a perfect movie to watch on a Saturday afternoon when you have nothing better to do. It’s also on TV all the time, so that helps. Despicable Me 2 had an equally small budget of $76 million, but this time around pulled in $970.8 million. I’d say that it was a rousing success. This all inevitably led to a movie that focused completely on Gru’s henchmen, the minions. Minions, released in 2015, followed the three main minions, Kevin, Stuart, and Bob as they searched for the perfect super-villain to hench for. Critics were conflicted on this one, with some praising the humor, and others calling it a stretched out premise with characters that couldn’t carry a movie by themselves. It wouldn’t have mattered if no critic liked the movie, audiences came in droves. This movie pulled in $1.159 billion against a budget of $74 million. That’s ludicrous. I wasn’t kidding when I said this series was a cash cow. There is a weird percentage of the population who really love the minions. I’m not talking kids either, this is full grown adults. For a few years you couldn’t walk outside without seeing a dad with some sort of minion merch. Minions is now the thirteenth highest grossing film of all time, the second highest animated film, and the highest grossing non-Disney animated movie. This is not adjusted for inflation, mind you. Snow White wipes the floor with Frozen and Minions with an adjusted gross of $1.8 billion. It helps when you’re the first of your kind and you don’t have to compete with TV or internet.
Illumination could probably get away with just making Despicable Me movies and they’d be all set. Their second movie, released in 2011, was Hop. Any movie that’s tied to a certain holiday has a hard time succeeding, in my mind. It’s even worse when it’s not a Halloween or Christmas movie. This one’s about Easter. It deals with who is going to take over being the Easter Bunny, the same plot that has been used for Christmas movies over the years with Santa Claus being substituted for the Easter Bunny. Critics were not enthralled by the movie, trashing it in their reviews. The movie did decent enough financially, grossing $184 million against a $63 million budget. Illumination’s next film was 2012’s The Lorax. Another Dr. Seuss adaptation, Audrey Geisel, Seuss’s wife, wanted it made since Chris Meledandri had worked with her on Horton Hears a Who! This explains why the Seuss movies jumped from Blue Sky to Illumination. Audrey Geisel seemingly will only work with Meledandri, seeing as a Grinch movie is in the works. The Lorax performed better than Hop, grossing $348.8 million against a $70 million budget. Reviews are just OK on this one, with many citing that though the animation was stellar, the message of the book was mostly lost in the usual Hollywood machine.
Outside of the Despicable Me movies and spin-offs, the most recent movies released through Illumination were both in 2016, The Secret Life of Pets, and Sing. Pets is a Pixar idea if I ever heard one. For the most part, their movies deal with seeing into the life of things that are either inanimate (Toy Story, Cars) or imaginary (Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, Wall-E). Two of their movies have dealt with looking into the worlds of animals, A Bug’s Life, and Finding Nemo. I’m actually a little surprised that Pixar didn’t go the pet route, though that’s probably because it’s been done. Lady and the Tramp, Oliver & Company, The Aristocats...the list goes on and on. The difference, I think, is that those movies never focused too much on the everyday life of pets, just stories that happened to star pets. Critics mostly liked the movie, though some pointed out that it too closely resembled Toy Story. That didn’t seem to bother theater-goers, as the film grossed a impressive $875 million. Illumination seems to think it did rather well, as they are already working on a sequel. Their second movie of 2016 dealt with the continued fad that is talent shows or singing competitions. Sing, released this last December, deals with anthropomorphic animals trying to win a singing competition. The movie features 65 pop songs, which buying the rights to ate up about 15% of the film’s budget. Critical reception was average, which seems to be par for the course for Illumination. You can’t seem to go wrong with talking animals; the movie grossed $631 million, marking another success for Illumination. A sequel for this movie is also in the works.
Besides a movie about The Grinch and a possible Cat in the Hat movie, all of their future projects are sequels. If the movies make money, you might as well keep re-hashing them! As stated earlier, Illumination’s report card is pretty average, with Despicable Me being the highest rated at 81% on Rotten Tomatoes. We’ll have to see if Illumination can pull out some more successful franchises, or if it’ll be stuck making the same movies over and over again.