How Illumination Entertainment Became An Animation Powerhouse

Despicable Me (2010) - Illumination Entertainment

Illumination Entertainment was founded in 2007. Since then, the animation company has seen its popularity soar, thanks to some great movies that really tapped into the hearts and minds of the movie-going public, particularly families. Illumination founder, Chris Meledandri, was President of Animation at 20th Century Fox until early 2007 when, after having successfully overseen movies such as Ice Age 2 and 3, Horton Hears A Who!, and Alvin and the Chipmunks, he decided to set up his own company. Thus, Illumination Entertainment was born and in 2008, it was announced that Illumination would serve as Universal’s family entertainment arm, producing one to two movies a year from 2010.

Illumination has remained independent, thereby retaining creative control over its films, while Universal holds the rights to exclusive distribution. It’s a deal that serves both parties well, particularly Illumination, since with Universal’s backing, their films have become available to a much wider audience.

Illumination’s first movie, Despicable Me, was an instant hit. Released in July 2010, the film grossed $543 million worldwide, on a budget of just $69 million. Starring Steve Carell as the voice of Gru, the villain who is terrible at being bad, Despicable Me also introduced Minions to the world. These little yellow creatures, who seek to serve the world’s most despicable masters, appealed to audiences across the globe. Visually, they are amusing enough, but add in their gobbledegook speak, with plenty of references to bananas, and the public (particularly children) go nuts over them.

Minions (2015) - Illumination Entertainment

Following on from Despicable Me came Hop, and then The Lorax. Both of these movies did well enough, grossing $184 million and $348.8 million respectively at the worldwide box office, but what the public really wanted from Illumination, was more Minions. Despicable Me 2 arrived in 2013, continuing the story of Gru, his adopted family, and of course, the Minions who serve him. Once again, Illumination struck gold. The movie grossed over $970 million worldwide, easily becoming the studio's most successful movie. As with Despicable Me, the sequel told a simple, but very humorous story. While the film definitely has heart, its main focus is on the humor, and that pulls audiences in. After Despicable Me 2, Illumination were fast becoming an animation force to be reckoned with.

The company decided to stick with what it does best, and set about making a Minion-centric movie. Cleverly titled Minions, the film served as a prequel to the Despicable Me movies of sorts, in that it focused on the little yellow creatures and their life before they met Gru, and was released in 2015.

To say Minions was a smash hit is almost an understatement. Grossing over $1.159 billion worldwide, Minions currently sits in second place in the list of highest grossing animated films, behind Frozen. But box office figures only tell one part of the story. Many movie goers, particularly families, went to watch the film more than once, but they also bought the merchandise, and the list of Minion related items is long. From clothing, to toys, to food, Minions appear everywhere, and their popularity shows no signs of dying out; Illumination have made sure of that by using them anywhere they can. In fact, Illumination have given a Minion short, Mower Minions, a theatrical release, playing it in front of their newest feature film, The Secret Life of Pets.

The Secret Life of Pets - Kevin Hart as Snowball

While The Secret Life of Pets might not reach the dizzying heights of success that Minions enjoyed, it should still pull in more than respectable global box office takings. Illumination have once again figures out exactly what an audience wants from a family movie, and they’ve really delivered. The Secret Life of Pets tells the story of Max, a beloved pup living in New York under the care of his owner, Katie. Every day, when Katie goes out to work, Max sits by the door, eagerly awaiting her return. At the same time, millions of other pet owners head out for the day, leaving their animals to get up to all sorts of antics, including gorging on the contents of the fridge, taking a spa bath, or rocking out to thrash metal music.

When Katie brings home a new brother for Max, in the form of a massive hound called Duke, it’s clear the two are not destined to get along. When they find themselves picked up by the pound, they try to find their way home, at the same time as Max’s fellow pet friends decide to go rescue him. Into the mix comes "The Flushed Pets"; a gang of pets that have been abandoned by their owners and now live outside of the law. They are led by a fluffy white bunny named Snowball, who is entirely crazy.

The film is an incredibly enjoyable piece of pure escapism. The jokes come thick and fast, and they are really good ones, too. It’s fair to say the film lacks depth, and the only emotion it really elicits is happiness; but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Secret Life of Pets has drawn a lot of comparisons to Toy Story and in part, that’s justified. The storylines are similar; the two central characters don’t get along but end up needing one another to find their way back home. Also like Toy Story, it’s the supporting characters that really make the film and ingratiate themselves into the public consciousness.

Illumination and The Secret Life of Pets

However, one thing Pixar is good at, is tugging on the heartstrings. Illumination doesn’t achieve that in Secret Life of Pets, since not enough time is spent following the central canines for us to really care when something sad does take place. But, that said, the supporting characters in Secret Life of Pets are sublime and really, the audience’s focus ends up on them rather than Max or Duke. Illumination know that sometimes, all we want, is to laugh at a movie. We don’t always want to be dragged down by a heart-breaking storyline, or reduced to tears by a montage of flashbacks. They have their place, sure, but so does comedy.

The world is full of pet lovers. In western civilization particularly, our pets are pampered. We spend money, time and effort on them in a bid to make them fully-fledged members of our families. The number of pet memes, gifs and videos circulating the internet is insane, and they pull audiences in the millions. We simply never tire of pets being funny, and let’s face it, most of us have wondered what our dog, cat, or bunny is thinking at one point or another. Clearly, Secret Life of Pets writers Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch have spent more time thinking about it than most, and the result is that we can actually imagine our pets getting up to a lot of the things we see on screen. Yes, it’s a madcap, crazy ride through a film that moves at breakneck speed, but it’s magnificent fun.

Sing (2016) trailer - Pigs

Now, with a string of hits to its name, Illumination’s future looks bright. They have another anthropomorphic animal film set for release this year; Sing will focus on an American Idol style singing competition featuring Apes, Pigs, Koalas and Sheep, to name but a few. Again, this is a movie that will (hopefully) cleverly incorporate the public’s love of reality television and animals. Following on from Sing, Despicable Me 3 will arrive in June 2017, giving audiences more of what they have a familiarity and love for. Also lined up in the future are two more Dr. Seuss animated adaptations; How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat, as well as an untitled Dr. Seuss biopic. Also lined up is an adaptation of Ricky Gervais’ popular children’s book, Flanimals. So while Illumination still continue to pedal the Minions (and why wouldn’t they?), they are also taking on some classic stories, much as Disney have often done, and bringing them to a new audience.

Dr. Seuss stories are ripe for being adapted into films, and indeed How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Cat in the Hat have both been tackled before (in live-action films starring Jim Carrey and Mike Myers, respectively). Illumination has already proven that it can remain faithful to Seuss’ source material with Horton Hears a Who! and The Lorax, so it seems like these adaptations are in safe hands. In just nine short years, Illumination has gone from a tiny independent company to one of the most successful animation companies of the present day, and certainly a worthy rival of Disney and Pixar. It’s true that it owes a large part of its success to the creation of Minions, but Illumination has also proven that it’s capable of so much more.

The Secret Life of Pets is in theaters now.

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