The Problem With Illumination

…and, in fact, most animation studios in general.

By now, you should have been able to read my review of Illumination Entertainment’s Minions.  If you haven’t read it yet then firstly shame on you and why do you not want me to become successful?  But, in any case, here are the cliff-notes: it’s really funny, I had a load of fun, Scarlet Overkill is amazing, and the Minions themselves are still wonderful comic creations.  I really liked Minions.  Still do, in fact, despite whatever I end up typing in this article.  However, a nagging realisation has stuck with me since I got out of the film and it’s something that concerns me for the studio’s future.

I can’t really tell you what the difference is between Illumination and every wannabe-DreamWorks pretender to come along since the mid-2000s.

I mean, yeah, Illumination has Despicable Me, and that’s all well and good, but somebody asked me on Twitter whether they’d enjoy Minions as the humour of Despicable Me turned them off of those films and I honestly drew a blank when trying to describe what exactly was so special about the Despicable Me humour.  I’ve spent the last few hours re-watching clips of both films to try and figure out what makes the Despicable Me brand, in comparison to any other animated brand out there, and the most I can come up with is that it’s willing to be a bit more openly cartoony than most other animated features.  Sure, its character designs – and therefore, if the designs of The Lorax and the upcoming The Secret Life of Pets are anything to go by, the standard character designs of Illumination in general – are distinctive and unmistakeable, but that’s really all that makes Illumination stand out from the field.

MinionsAgain, I really like Minions and I really liked Despicable Me 2 when I saw it, but I still can’t tell you what separates them from ten-hundred other American animated features desperate to become the next best thing, besides the fact that they’re really damn good at what they do.  The one thing that does sort of separate them, slightly wackier humour than is usual in today’s animated features, is even running the risk of being outdone by Sony Pictures Animation if Hotel Transylvania 2 is able to deliver on the promise that the underwhelming first film had – since that and the Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs series might finally change the studio’s reputation to something other than “Those People Who Helped Make TWO Abominable Smurfs Movies”.

Instead, they’re still just yet another animation studio making family films in a medium already drowning in animation studios making family films.  For example, tell me something that makes Hop different from any number of similarly-awful live-action/CGI hybrids from the mid-2000s besides the fact that this one paid Russell Brand money to voice act.  Anything at all.  This is an animation studio that managed to turn Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, a brilliant low-key cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive deforestation, into another loud whizz-bang CG animation that’s nearly indistinguishable from anything released in, say, 2007.

Just over a week ago, Illumination released the trailer for their next film, The Secret Life of Pets, which you can view above.  I really, really dug it.  It may have reigned in the wacky cartoony-ness of the Despicable Me humour significantly, but it also couched that in reality.  This was a trailer that got most of its laughs through exaggerating observations and ideas that we have about our pets, and its short little vignette form allowed it to maintain the quick pace that Minions has.  It probably wouldn’t be sustainable if it were a feature film exactly like this, but it’s a strong basis and, even with the usage of pop music (although I do appreciate the leftfield choices of Basement Jaxx and System Of A Down), it has a unique feel and personality that’s decidedly lower-key than most of today’s animation.

Then I read the film’s plot synopsis.  This is taken straight from Wikipedia.

Taking place in a Manhattan apartment building, Max’s life as a favorite pet is turned upside down, when his owner brings home a sloppy mongrel named Duke. They have to put their quarrels behind, when they find out that an adorable white bunny named Snowball is building an army of abandoned pets determined to take revenge on all happily-owned pets and their owners.

If you’re anything like me, your heart and enthusiasm promptly sank about 12 feet once you finished reading that.  It just bugs and irritates the hell out of me to see a film with as much unique and original potential the The Secret Life of Pets’ first trailer showcased, instead turn out to be – or, I should actually say, appear to be, since who knows how the actual film will turn out – an animated version of Cats & Dogs, with the blueprint of a million other animated films buried in it, especially Toy Story.  It could still be a great version of that loud whizz-bang CG animated family feature, but I’m tired of studios not trying to carve out an identity beyond “We make loud whizz-bang CG animated family features”.

The LoraxI mean, it makes sense that Illumination have yet to establish a unique brand and voice, their founder is Chris Meledandri.  From the early to late 2000s, he was the President of 20th Century Fox’s Animation department, with him being a big part of the early years of Blue Sky Studios, another animation company who – despite having released films for the last 13 years – have still yet to carve out an identity besides “We make loud whizz-bang CG animated family features”.  That’s especially a problem because Blue Sky’s debut feature, Ice Age, actually did have a unique and distinctive voice and identity of its own, being more melancholy and reflective and (slightly) mature than other films that came along then and since, before the sequels (and everything else the studio has ever done) proceeded to stamp out the unique parts in favour of ridiculous cartoony spectacle.  WHICH IS FINE, but it means that I have yet to see a Blue Sky movie that has truly stuck with me besides that original Ice Age, because their films, even Epic’s attempt at an action-fantasy, don’t do anything that a hundred other animated features aren’t already doing.

That means that, in the 13 years that Blue Sky Studios have been releasing movies, they still don’t have any unique or discernible identity besides “That Animation Studio 20th Century Fox Owns”.  That makes them the studio equivalent of Silly Putty, they can mould and shape themselves into whatever they want to but they’ll never be their own unique thing because they’re too indebted to everyone else to have their own identity – which I guess does make them the perfect folks to make The Peanuts Movie after all (side note: PLEASE DON’T SUCK).  Blue Sky have had 13 years to break out of that mould, and they’ve instead continued to settle for being Another One in a sea of likeminded competitors.

But, really, this is more just a problem with animated films in general, right now.  Animation is a medium and therefore capable of so many things, so many stories, and so many genres.  Yet American and British feature animation, and the foreign ones that manage to get a release in English-speaking countries, is resolutely family and kid-oriented, to tie back into that post-1950 belief that animation is only for children.  But it’s patently untrue, the booming TV animation market should have dispelled that notion, yet we very, very rarely get adult or even teenage feature animation – the last one that got a wide release (which I classify as over 1,000 theatres) was 2009’s unfairly underrated 9, a PG-13 action-adventure that unfortunately bombed majorly because, well, animation is for kids, right?

Despicable MeIt’s basically a self-perpetuating problem.  Feature animation is in a sort of rut – and I want to specify the “sort of” because some outstanding and all-time great animated features are being made and released – because it believes that feature animation is only “loud whizz-bang CG family features”, a belief reinforced by a public who reject anything adult that isn’t tied to a recognisable property (hence why The Simpsons Movie was a mega-success) but keep flinging money at these mostly interchangeable films – in writing this article, I discovered that Ice Age 3 and 4 have made $897 million and $887 million worldwide respectively – which undoubtedly prevents these studios from creating their own unique identities because, hey, why turn away free money?  And with foreign dollars being ever so important in today’s filmmaking landscape, and slapstick and spectacle translating flawlessly no matter the language, this probably isn’t going to change any time soon.

That’s ultimately a shame, because animation is capable of so much more than this, yet right now I honestly can’t tell you much of difference between any of the animated features that are not put out by Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Laika, or Aardman, and only Laika of those five is less than twenty years old.  Animation studios need to carve out their own different identities, they need to aim to create something special, something unique.  There really isn’t much separating Blue Sky Studios and Illumination Entertainment, at the moment, and this is not how things should be.  Blue Sky have been around for 13 years, so they’re rather set in their ways and identity by now.  Illumination are barely half a decade old.  It’s not too late.

Callum Petch can’t live on, live on without you.  Listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio (site link) and follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

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