Well, Mike Myers, it looks like there’s really no reason for you to bother making a Dr. Evil movie.
Last week, I drove down to Santa Monica, where I met a handful of other online writers at the offices of Illumination Entertainment, the company that was founded by Chris Meledandri, a former Fox executive who was in charge of animated films there like “Anastasia,” “Titan A.E.,” and “Ice Age.” We sat to talk with Chris for a while, then saw a few sequences from the film, and then talked to Chris again. The intent was to unveil the film for us and to explain what Illumination Entertainment is up to in general.
I suspect you’ll see several articles today and tomorrow popping up at various sites, and I suspect most of the reactions to what we saw will be favorable. I’ll give Meledandri this… he’s earned his place in the animation industry the hard way, by making many films, and by making gradually refining his idea of what he wants from animation. When he was a kid, he was raised by a mom who would take him to see things like “Easy Rider” or “Taxi Driver” in the theater, but who refused to take him to “Bambi,” so he was not familiar with animation to any real extent until he became a parent and, more importantly, a Fox executive. Fox tried to set up their own animation studio in the ’90s with Don Bluth as one of the guys running it, and I remember that era. When I first moved to Los Angeles, it was just as Disney was starting to make massive commercial hits, and I was here when Disney managed to get that Best Picture nomination for “Beauty and the Beast.” You could feel the shock wave in town, and suddenly everyone wanted to have their own feature animation division. Fox paid a fortune to set up a studio in Arizona, and as soon as they put Don Bluth in charge of it, I knew they were finished. I admire Bluth’s first film, “The Secret Of NIMH,” but I knew a lot of people who had been part of Bluth’s doomed Irish endeavor, and I had heard way too many stories about his approach to development to have any faith in him as a filmmaker.
I’ll say this for Fox in those days, though… they didn’t play it as pandering and safe as many people did. “Anastasia” wasn’t great, but it tried to be a real film, and “Titan A.E.” didn’t ultimately work, but it aimed for something different than what everyone else was doing. “Titan” lost a lot of money for the studio. Meledandri pinned the loss at somewhere around $100 million “of Rupert Murdoch’s money” when we spoke, and he can laugh about it now, but that the time, his stock was incredibly low at the studio.
He deserves credit for finding the Blue Sky guys, though, and putting them together with the script for “Ice Age,” which was originally developed as a 2D animated film. That series has become one of the studio’s biggest franchises, and even if I’m not crazy about the movies, I’ve seen first-hand how well they play to kids. And I think that little by little, working with different creative teams, and gradually narrowing his focus to animation, Meledandri has become one of the most hands-on animation producers working.
As we walked through the studio, I saw several people at workstations working on scenes from “The Lorax,” another Dr. Seuss adaptation, following up their successful collaboration with the Seuss estate on “Horton Hears A Who.” Seuss is one of those things that really only works as animation, something I think has been conclusively proven now. And the closer you can stay to the source material in terms of look and language, the better. What I saw, even in those stills, sure looked like Seuss to me.
In the editing room, we saw several sequences. The movie opens with the first teaser trailer, which you might remember:
That’s pretty much the exact opening scene. And the reason it was chosen as the first trailer is because it pretty much was the first completed scene in the movie. It leads almost directly into the second teaser trailer, although that features footage from several sequences:
That’s Gru, Steve Carell’s character, walking along and interacting with the kid with the ice cream cone. Gru is a supervillain who’s been around for a while, and who has done fairly well for himself in the world of supervillainy. He was not, however, the culprit behind the theft of the Pyramid at Giza. Some newcomer is starting to upstage him, and Gru has set his sights on his grandest goal ever in an effort to re-establish himself as the number one bad guy in the world: he is going to steal the moon.
That would provide enough comic material for a simple caper film, and the second half of that second trailer gives you an idea of the tone in the sequences between Vector (Jason Segal) and Gru. Vector is the up-and-comer, and his father is a banker (voiced by WIll Arnett) who used to help fund Gru’s evil plans. The film deals with issues of parental support and approval in a number of ways, and if there’s anything that surprised me after seeing all of the marketing materials so far, it was the stuff involving Gru and the three little orphan girls he takes in and plays surrogate father to in the film.
Yes, it’s a nod to the family market… sort of. But the film has a wicked sort of Edward Gorey/Charles Addams sense of humor to it, and although the little girls are paragons of cute, Gru remains Gru, a supervillain to the bone. It’s who he is. There’s a funny sequence we saw (pictured at the head of this article) where Jack McBrayer voices a carnie who invites the girls to try to win a stuffed animal by knocking down a target with a pellet gun. None of them are able to do it, and when McBrayer gets nasty about it, Gru responds by pulling out a laser cannon that sets off what appears to be a small thermonuclear reaction, torching the whole booth and winning the doll for them. It’s both cute and sinister at the same time, and if the whole film can walk that sort of line, then they’re on to something.
Gru also has a mother who he has spent his whole life trying to please, played by Julie Andrews, and she’s been both designed visually and written as the Queen of all Ballbusters. I wish we’d seen some of her scenes, but the designs for her are very funny, and striking. You get it as soon as you see her. Andrews is just part of a voice cast that includes Danny McBride, Russell Brand, Kristen Wiig, and Ken Jeong. It’s a pretty hip cast overall.
When we sat down to talk to Meledandri, the first question I had for him is why they’ve sold the public three or four totally different movies now, and none of them are really the film yet. It’s like they keep introducing individual elements, but there’s nothing in the campaign that pulls it all together. Yet.
Yet seems to be the key word here. Meledandri acknowledged how hard it is with an original property that’s not based on any pre-existing material to introduce the film to the public. In this case, they are still six months out from the release, so I’d say they’re pacing themselves right, waiting to sell the story of Gru, his goal, and the little girls last. Until then, they’re following the playbook that “Ice Age” used so well when they focused on a minor character to great effect. Scrat is the symbol of those movies, but the movies aren’t about him at all. This time out, they’re going to rely on the Minions of Gru as a big part of how they sell the film, and I think that’s smart. The Minions are classic gag-based cartoon characters, visual and silly and fun, and using them as a separate part of the campaign is not a bad thing.
I liked that the character work by Carell as Gru was not just “Steve Carell as Steve Carell,” and it seems like even though they hired some big names, Illumination knows that the characters have to work within the film, and you can’t just rely on big names to carry the movie. I’ve seen a lot of animated movies make that mistake, and I think Meledandri and his team have all learned that lesson over time.
Look, it’s hard to say what the final film will be based on what we saw, but I can honestly say that Meledandri impressed me as someone who takes animation seriously, who doesn’t see it as a “genre for children,” something that drives me crazy, and that if Illumination gets some hits under their belt, they might take chances that Pixar can’t because of how carefully constructed their brand is. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Illumination try to push into PG-13 territory or to tell stories that aren’t aimed at kids at all, but I think we’re a long way from that. Right now, they’re focused on finishing this film, then releasing it right, and in a summer where everything’s a sequel or a remake or a comic book or a video game, the mere act of trying to introduce your own characters into pop culture is downright radical.
Here’s a gallery of new images from the film, and you’ll be able to check it out for yourself on July 9, when “Despicable Me” opens in theaters.
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