Written by Tom Moore
Have you ever had a person, place, movie, idea, or thing that literally everyone around seems to love and you just don’t feel that same way at all? Maybe it’s a big-name franchise, some new trend, or maybe it’s as simple as a song. Personally, there’s just one film studio that, every time I see a trailer for one of their films, I let out an audible groan so loud that people in adjacent theaters can probably hear me.
An animation studio founded in 2007 under the Universal Studios umbrella, Illumination (formerly Illumination Entertainment), a company many may not recognize it by name alone, but most would easily recognize them as the creators of the pop-culture phenomenon, the Minions. Yes, those yellow goofballs that either captured everyone’s hearts or caused headaches, were what put Illumination on the map with their debut in 2010’s Despicable Me. That’s where my war began with Illumination and those damn Minions.
Now, I want to be clear, if you’re a fan of Illumination’s work and have a deep love for their films, I have NO ill-will towards you whatsoever. Frankly, although I groan every time their name comes onto the screen, I really want to love their films. Every time I go into one, I always wipe the slate clean and just hope to have a good time. However, upon leaving their latest outing, The Secret Life of Pets 2, I was left disappointed and reassured that my war with Illumination will wage on. Now, surely you might be wondering why I’m fixated on the studio, but Illumination has garnered much success and has even become, in my opinion, one of the most consistently successful studios in the industry today.
Don’t get me wrong, none of their films are critical darlings by any standard and their only film to even remotely see the glimmer of an Academy Award was Despicable Me 2. However, Illumination has been successful on a different, and honestly more important, front that has made them such a dominant force in animation. Time after time, audiences have been the deciding factor on whether a film will be deemed a success or a failure and in the case of Illumination, they’ve been more than vocal about how much they love their films.
That’s especially true with CinemaScore, a market research firm based in Las Vegas that surveys audiences by asking them to provide their viewing experience with a letter grade. Illumination has never released a film that’s scored lower than an A- on CinemaScore. Regardless how much stock you might put into Cinemascore as a whole, it’s hard to deny audiences seem consistently pleased by what Illumination has to offer.
Audiences have even spoken with their wallets and have made Illumination a strong force at the box office. Outside of their live-action animated hybrid Hop, all of Illumination’s animated outings have grossed at least three times their budgets. The audience support has been so strong that Illumination currently has three films sitting on the list of the top 50 highest grossing movies of all-time: Despicable Me 2 (#41), Despicable Me 3 (#32), and Minions (#19). Specifically, Minions is actually more impressive when you realize that it beat other “box-office champions” like Captain America: Civil War, Captain Marvel, Aquaman, Toy Story 3, all three Hobbit movies, and plenty of other big names.
With all of this in mind, it’s clear that audiences heavily resonate with Illumination’s work and that’s what made me so fixated on why I haven’t felt the same. So, I’ve decided to put my pitchfork down, snuff out my torches, and delve into the Illumination formula to see why their films haven’t resonated with and see if I might even have a change of heart.
Where Illumination has always lost me is in how they tell their stories. On paper, their concepts are great and there’s a lot of creative freedom that can come from tackling the works of Dr. Seuss. However, their execution always makes their stories incredibly unfocused and formulaic. Their films always seem like they have a lot going on, but they can never hold my attention. They always start off with one plot thread but end up cutting back and forth to other “intertwined” stories that just take away from the main plot. While I can kind of accept this for a film like Sing as it tells the story of multiple contestants trying to better themselves by winning a singing competition, the other films really falter.
There’s a point in Despicable Me where Dr. Nefario says that Gru doesn’t seem focused and I literally said out loud: “Well, I don’t blame him.” Things start out simple with Gru wanting to outclass other villains by stealing the moon, but quickly become muddled once other things are thrown into the mix. While it’s fine to switch to Margo, Edith, and Agnes, I felt like the film’s focus on the Minions and Vector felt shoved-in and made the viewing experience feel overcrowded.
Their parts didn’t add much to Gru’s story and felt so much like filler that I eventually felt disconnected to what was happening. It’s like they thought viewers needed a break from the main plot, but it’s honestly unnecessary and because of how it disconnects me from the film, the film’s emotional peaks didn’t hit for me. Not to mention, the idea of an adult struggling to take care of new kids and growing from it isn’t exactly original. Even for a film like Sing, it constantly comes off as cashing in on famous songs rather than creating fresh new ones.
Even their two Dr. Seuss adaptations, The Lorax and The Grinch, suffer from being unfocused and the strong messages that are often seen in Seuss’s work pretty much fade away. In The Lorax, the Once-ler’s story about what the titular Lorax taught him is constantly interrupted by Ted returning to Thneedville in order to rebel against the evil Mr. O’Hare and win the heart of Audrey. What should’ve happened with The Lorax is that the Once-ler’s story should’ve been told straight-through, giving Ted the inspiration to be the new Lorax and bring the trees back. Instead, the message and Ted’s growth are lost somewhere between him flirting with Audrey, his mom talking about disco, or O’Hare’s hair-brained schemes to sell air. Even for The Grinch, the dual stories of the Grinch and Cindy-Lou Who make it more jammed than it needs to be and one of my biggest gripes about the film is that it doesn’t do a whole lot to try to break away from the original.
Nowhere, though, has this unfocused storytelling caused more problems than in The Secret Life of Pets franchise. While Max might be the franchise’s central character, his story is constantly interrupted by other “intertwined” stories that just make the film’s a headache to watch. I’ve always said that the series would’ve been better as an anthology. Think of the format of films like 2004’s Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas or Fantasia but with the story and characters of The Secret Life of Pets.
Telling the story this way offers more of a chance for viewers to get a slice of each character’s uninterrupted story and actually be able to take away something from it. This especially could’ve benefited The Secret Life of Pets 2, as the unfocused storytelling makes Gidget and Snowball’s stories feel weak and forgettable as the constant shift in focus almost makes you forget that they’re even in the film. This series has truly been the pinnacle of my problem with Illumination’s.
Now, between the unfocused story points is humor that I find to be cheap, recycled, and random. Often, Illumination films are littered with meme-worthy joke that’s just thrown in. Instead of jokes organically happening through either great dialogue or animation, humor is intrusively inserted, making it out of place at times. Not to mention, their films are filled with cheap pop-culture references that are given enough effort to feel special and elicit more eye rolls and groans than any form of laughter. Just look at this quick scene from The Lorax below and try to deny that the humor here isn’t intrusive, cheap, or random:
Scenes like this can be seen throughout Illumination’s work and it’s been a big reason why their films don’t work for me. From Ted’s dancing to disco to The Grinch having an eating montage, to pretty much anything the Minions do, the random humor is completely forced. Honestly, it’s especially forced in their Dr. Seuss adaptations and it can be so cringe-worthy, I can feel Seuss rolling in his grave. Even the entire opening montage of The Secret Life of Pets is like a collection of funny YouTube pet videos that’s just an easy way to entertain audiences. There’s no sophistication or framework behind the jokes and they can even take a crude, cynical turn like Snowball and his sewer goons talking about killing pet owners in The Secret Life of Pets or having Mike mug someone at the beginning of Sing.
The focal point of this strangeness, though, comes from a true Illumination special that’s the key ingredient to their films: “the scene-stealer.” You know, that comic relief character that’s a mix of zany, weird, loud, annoying, and definitely random. It all started with the Minions and their babble-talk, hyper-active personalities, and the fact they’re just so odd and in your face that they’re hard to ignore. Since they were such a hit with audiences, Illumination has stuck in Minion-esque characters into all of their films and wants to remind viewers of them so much that they are a part of all of their opening logos.
In the Despicable Me series and Minions, it’s the Minions. In The Secret Life of Pets, it’s Snowball. In Sing, it’s Gunter. In The Grinch, it’s Mr. Bricklebaum. In The Lorax, it’s the trio of fish and pretty much any animal in that forest. Personally, I’ve always found these characters annoyingly pointless and they never add anything to the plot, obviously, except for the Minions in Minions. These kinds of characters can be fun in doses, however, Illumination overuses them and they become tiring really quick.
Now, I’ve been doing a lot of hating on Illumination throughout this piece, but I’d be lying if I ignored the fact that throughout revisiting their work, I did notice some things they do well. My heart hasn’t grown three sizes bigger or anything, but there is some noticeable talent that could be tapped into more often. Like I said before, their concepts have a lot of potential. Seeing what pets do while we’re away and the turn of an evil villain are concepts with wide appeal and Seuss’s stories have the potential to be modernized while still keeping the timeless messages. I even think that Minions has a solid plot and having the Minions search for a villainous leader can bring a lot of fun.
I also slowly grew an appreciation for the animation and artistic style. I think it gets better with each film and they do a nice job creating worlds that are bright and imaginative—especially with their Dr. Seuss adaptations. Seeing the inflatable plastic trees of Thneedville, the colorful trees of the Lorax’s forest, and the decorative and wintery Christmas spirit of Whoville is quite a deligh. There were even some times where I could see Illumination trying to create great comedic moments as well as touchingly emotional moments through the animation. I got a chuckle out of seeing the poster of Nixon when the Minions arrive in New York City in Minions and the opening sequence of the Grinch trying to kill his alarm clock is pretty funny. I also really enjoyed the sequence in The Lorax where he and the other forest animals mourn the tree that the Once-ler cuts down.
Even their character designs are nice and are elevated by the voice casts. It’s crazy to think that they get big names like Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Michael Keaton, Steve Carrell, Benedict Cumberbatch, and plenty more. Hell, they even got Geoffrey Rush to narrate Minions and, most of the time, they do a good job directing actors to hide their voices. All of these things are aspects that I hope that Illumination can continue to do and elevate to break their formula.
So, even though I wouldn’t say my views have changed much on Illumination’s films and their formula, I still stand by what I said about them being worth talking about. There’s clearly some talent there and, while I might not be a fan, I definitely recommend giving them a chance. With a Minions and Sing sequels in Illumination’s future as well as an animated film based on Super Mario, it’s clear that our war will rage on.