A visit to Illumination Studios and a sneak peek at ‘The Lorax’

Illumination Studios stands in an unassuming building on an industrial street in Santa Monica.  The only indication from outside as to the building’s identity comes from an occasional glimpse of a Minion from “Despicable Me” through one of the windows.  One would never guess just driving by that this building is where they’re currently working to build a new animation legacy.

And, by all accounts, succeeding.

I first visited the studio as they were working on “Despicable Me,” and my first impression of Chris Meledandri was that he definitely knew how to talk a good game.  He was an important part of Fox’s animation relationship with Blue Sky Studios, and when he left Fox, he decided that he wanted to focus all of his energies on creating animated movies.  If you’re going to get into that business, you can’t dabble.   You have to go all in.  You have to believe in animation 100%, and you have to focus on making each film great.  I’ve seen studios make the mistake of thinking they can crank out kid movies and they don’t have to respect the audience or the process, but in those cases, they almost always fail.

Meledandri’s first picture for Illumination, “Despicable Me,” did a very nice job of establishing a style and a sensibility that was their own.  They also ended up with their very own mascots, the Minions, who they are going to be dropping into films for some time to come, I suspect.  The film did well for Universal, but more than that, it gave Illumination credibility.

Meledandri has always had his eye on some big properties, and when he talks about how important Dr. Seuss is to him, it’s not marketing speak.  Like many people, he was marked deeply by the work that Ted Geisel published under the name “Dr Seuss,” and he is determined to bring that work to life while respecting the original material.  That’s not always easy, and some very good filmmakers have stumbled under the weight of that work.

In particular, if you’re going to adapt “The Lorax,” you need to bring your A-game to it, because it’s one of the best pieces Seuss every published, and one of the angriest.  It is a sad, solemn book, with a quiet rage simmering just beneath the illustrations and the rhyming verse, a book that demands people accept personal responsibility for the condition of the world around them.

The worst thing you could do to “The Lorax” would be to turn it into the sort of brash, ugly Hollywood comedy that Universal created with “Cat In The Hat.”  It helps that Meledandri was part of the team that secured the rights to “Horton Hears A Who” when he was still at Fox, and he’s maintained a close relationship with Audrey Geisel, the widow who now stands in charge of a phenomenal body of work, determined to keep it from getting manhandled in the future.

We saw a few scenes from the film and what was then the still-unreleased trailer, and then sat down with Meledandri to talk to him about bringing Seuss to life and working directly with Audrey Geisel, and once again, he said all the right things.

“The challenge of this movie is very different from the challenge with ‘Despicable Me’ because of the pressure of doing an adaptation of a beloved work.  Really, any of Geisel’s work presents a very, very different challenge.”  He’s working with the team who wrote “Horton Hears A Who,” but with composer John Powell in the mix to help bring the songs to life.  “At the core of the book is a story with very serious themes, starting with how greed can seduce you into a place where you lose your sensitivity to the world around you.  In the case of this story, that greed actually becomes destructive.  At the center of it is a story of redemption.  The character of the Once-ler is ultimately a character who wants to undo what he’s done.”

In the book, the Once-ler is a mysterious figure, only glimpsed in part.  His signature arms and eyes are certainly featured here, but the film makes the decision to let us meet the young Once-ler and see his downfall.  In the film’s framing device, he tells us the story looking like this…

… but in the story itself, he’s going to look like this…

… and in both versions, he’s voiced by Ed Helms.  He’s the guy whose creation of the Thneed motivates everything.  The film takes place in Thneedville, for example.  He’s that big a hero… from one perspective.  The other side of that, of course, is that this creation leads to a full-blown ecological disaster, and Dr. Seuss stacked the deck to make sure we understand just how much is lost when that happens.  I think it’s one of the loveliest of the many books created by Geisel over the years.  I hold the original right up there with “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” and “Green Eggs & Ham” for sheer mastery of the form.  I’ve been reading it to my kids since they were very young, and they know the story innately at this point.
How does Meledandri deal with that sort of molecular-level fandom of the original story?  “The challenge becomes taking a story that has these very important thematic elements and doing what Geisel did so well, which is to present the story in a way that highly engaging, so audiences come and enjoy it and are dazzled by the imagination.  Then perhaps they’ll leave the encounter influenced by the content.  We’re making a movie that aspires to be highly entertaining, visually of great scope, exciting and emotionally packed, but the core of it is still, undoubtedly, this story.”  He knows that you can’t just lean on the source material here.  “If you translated this book directly, it would be a  movie that would probably be 20 minutes long.  We look at what happened before the book starts, we look at what’s happening between the pages, and in this case, what happens after the book ends.  It’s about how you do that while still honoring the story that’s there.”

Meledandri says this film is very much about these new characters, more than adding any other sort of high concept plot.  “It’s about a kid who has absolutely got a head-over-heels crush on his neighbor, who is three or four years older, and he’s a romantic.  They live in this artificial world.  Nature has been taken out of it, drained like a city like Las Vegas, Everything you might desire has been replaced by something that’s fake.  No one is complaining except this one girl who he has the crush on, and she is fascinated with the idea of real trees.  She paints these trees, and no one else even thinks about them.  So that leads him to ask his grandmother, ‘Where can I find out about trees?,’ and he goes down this path.

That path, of course, is what leads to the Once-ler, who tells his story of how he destroyed the land surrounding his decaying hideaway.  I remarked that it seemed like a sweet touch to have the young lovers in the film named Ted and Audrey, after Dr. Seuss and his widow, and Melendandri seemed pleased by the detail.  Audrey, played in the film by Taylor Swift, is a nice accomplishment in terms of design.  There’s a softness and a delicacy to the animation that is impressive, and it seemed important to the producer.  “Audrey is one of my favorite human CG characters that I’ve seen.”

The film’s look overall is fluffy and tactile, and Meledandri talked about how hard it was to create the film’s distinctly Seussian aesthetic.  “There’s a fairly long period of RND, where you’re going through trial and error to get a certain effect.  That happens over the course of the visual development of the film, for many, many months.  It’s one of the main projects.”

They’ve been working at a steady clip since opening their doors, delivering “Despicable Me,” “Hop,” and now “Lorax,” and we talked about how they work at that sort of pace.  “Start to fish, from inception to completion of the film [on “Despicable Me”] was a little over three years.  That was lightning fast.  That’s including the writing of the script.  We got a head start here, on the writing, because that was going on while ‘Despicable’ was being made.  Once we get into production time frames, as opposed to development time frames… we”re still roughly making the movie in a production timeline of about 18 months, with pre-production being all of the storyboarding, about nine months prior to that.”

Meledandri said that when they were originally thinking about the combination of vulgar and wise and grouchy, they had Walter Matthau in mind.  But when Danny DeVito’s name came up, they liked that he’s able to play irascible “but still find that place of emotional access.”  With the young cast, he said there was a different challenge to overcome.  “First of all, their voices are at risk of changing overnight, which could be a production problem. Also, a lot of kids today, at that age group, are trained to be TV actors. You listen to hundreds of kids, and they all sound the same. They”re all pitched at the same place because that”s where the jobs are. [‘Lorax’ director] Chris Renaud was very interested in thinking older, just to get some more substance and acting in the voice. Zac Efron has this boyish quality to him, and it came through in his voice.”

Casting Betty White is almost too easy at this point, but can you blame someone for wanting to work with her?  “This phenomenon with Betty White is so wonderfully amazing. In a world where agism runs rampant, out of left field, all of a sudden, the country decides to celebrate Betty White and she becomes cool at 90. That”s remarkable. Just to have the movie be a beneficiary of her energy and that performance, it brings a lot to a role that ultimately becomes a very substantial role in the film. And, she”s Audrey Geisel”s favorite actress right now. She loves Betty White.”

He’s going to be in business with Audrey Geisel for a while if all goes well, and so it behooves him to cast her favorite actors.  She’s known for being very protective, so the question came up if the film would be delivered in rhyming verse from start to finish.  “It is not,” explained Meledandri.  “The dialogue is not in rhyme, but there are  moments where it feels like it’s called for and emerges. So, it”s present, but it”s not consistently throughout all the dialogue.”

We asked him about the responsibility of the film to convey the same message that was so important to Geisel when the book was first published in 1971.  “When he started out, he was a political cartoonist first and he made the decision to write and illustrate for young thinkers because he realized that his political cartoons really didn”t change anybody”s mind. He was either preaching to the converted, or he was running up against walls. He realized if you want to have an impact on the way people think, he”d get a much bigger return on his artistic investment with a younger audience.”  That digging into Seuss as a writer is one of the things that led Meledandri, Audrey Geisel, and Johnny Depp to team up for what may be a very surreal approach to a biopic about the legendary author.  The appeal makes perfect sense.  “That”s why these books are the ones that adults pull off the shelves so quickly. They do speak across generations.”

He talked about what the film might be.  “A live-action story about Ted Geisel”s life and partnership, for Johnny to play Ted Geisel. When you keep digging into his life, you keep finding more and more things. There”s more that I don”t know than I do know. Every time we dive into it, we find some other little gem.”  He said Audrey is very supportive, and likes Depp for the part.  “She is incredibly protective.  She was his second wife, and played a very different role in his life than his first wife, who was intricately involved in his entire career and the publishing, and all of that. She”s got a really acute sense of what the essence of the work is, and a very strong point of view about how to protect that. Without that, it just dissipates and rules start getting broken. It”s just inevitable. I think every great property that wants to endure needs somebody to be the keeper, in that way, and she plays that role.”

While he wouldn’t get specific, Meledandri did leave us with the feeling that “The Lorax” is a test-run for a relationship he hopes will result in film after film of tackling these amazing books as movies.  “The combination of my feelings about his legacy and her comfort level, having now been working together for eight years, it just makes sense for both sides to continue to do this. With any great artist from the twentieth century whose work lends itself to this medium, there”s an opportunity and a responsibility to secure that legacy for future generations. If you”re not actively working on it, a lot of other things come into the global consciousness and things can get lost. An objective of ours is to make sure that we do what we can do to make him extremely relevant for future generations because he was talking about things that were absolutely timeless.”


I couldn’t agree more.  Ted Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, deserves to be treated right when his work is brought to life, and if nothing else, I can vouch for the fierce devotion they feel to the man and his legacy.  Will that translate into a feature film that does him full justice?

“Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” opens in theaters March 2, so we’ll find out soon.