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Despicable Me 2 is on track to become the most profitable film in Universal Pictures’ 100-plus year history, and that has turned Illumination Entertainment head Chris Meledandri into the current darling of Hollywood. This Bloomberg Businessweek piece is one of the few things I’ve read about Meledandri’s low-budget approach to feature animation. He pioneered this lower-risk model while he was at Fox, where he was responsible for the Ice Age series, one of the most successful animated feature franchises in history.
“We’re not spending our money on every blade of grass and the leaves on the trees,” says Janet Healy, who is Meledandri’s co-producer. Not only is the production process more restrained, but so is the development process. Illumination picks and chooses exactly what it wants to produce instead of spending money developing numerous pictures that may never move into production. Illumination’s US office has only 35 employees, and though most of the creative work is done elsewhere (particularly Mac Guff in Paris), that’s still a modest corporate structure for a feature animation studio.
Meledandri, like DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and increasingly John Lasseter at Pixar and Disney, prides himself on the producer-driven approach to filmmaking. He mentions in the article that there is never any dissent because he oversees creative approvals on a daily basis: “There is never a situation where a production proceeds down a path only to discover those with ultimate creative authority aren’t in agreement.” The strategy has worked exceedingly well for him so far, though the strategy isn’t always clear, even to those who work with him. “I think he’s got a vision,” says his co-producer Healy. “I just don’t know what it is.”
Despicable Me 2, which debuted in the United States on Wednesday with a mammoth $34.3 million, is headed into what is guaranteed to be a huge opening weekend. The film is the fourth effort from Illumination Entertainment, the studio run by Chris Meledandri, who is the former 20th Century Fox Animation president responsible for films like Ice Age and Horton Hears a Who!.
Critical reaction to Despicable Me 2, directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, has been decent though not spectacular, which is quite similar to another recent animated follow-up, Pixar’s Monsters University. The critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes stands at 75% with an audience rating of 89%. Variety labeled the film an “endearing if slightly less inspired sequel,” while the NY Times stated that it was “consistently diverting and so cute you’ll want to pet it” while cautioning that “it is also weightless and lacks a center.” The note sounded by most critics is that it’s ultimately a likeable film, as summed up by the Village Voice: “It’s breezy and affable without ever going completely soft.”
And now it’s your turn. After you see the film, report back here with your thoughts in the comments below. As always, this talkback is reserved for readers who have seen the film and wish to share their views with others in the animation community.
Someone on the Chinese video site Sina posted this work-in-progress trailer for The Lorax from Illumination Entertainment, whose earlier films were Despicable Me and Hop. Some shots are incomplete and unfinished, but it’s worth a look:
The Lorax, which is slated to open March 2nd, 2012, is directed by Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda. It’s the second Seuss adapation for Illumination founder Chris Meledandri, who previously produced Horton Hears a Who! while running 20th Century Fox Animation. Danny DeVito voices the Lorax, and Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, Ed Helms and Betty White provide additional voices.
Fox Business’s Lou Dobbs claims that President Obama’s “liberal friends in Hollywood” are “targeting a younger demographic using animated movies to sell their agenda to children.” He cites Studio Ghibli’s The Secret World of Arrietty and Illumination Entertainment’s upcoming The Lorax as evidence of this indoctrination. One of Dobbs’s guests claims that these films are creating a generation of Occutoddlers, referring to the Occupy Wall Street movement which these films allegedly promote.
Of course, I wouldn’t put it past Fox that they’d try to stick it to Chris Meledandri, who runs Illumination and is a competitor of Fox in the animation market. After all, Meledandri used to run 20th Century Fox Animation and oversaw the earlier Dr. Seuss animated adaptation, Horton Hears a Who!, which was distributed by Fox.
Illumination Entertainment’s The Lorax exceeded expectations and debuted in first place with a stunning $70.2 million last weekend. That places it in eighth place for all-time biggest openings for an animated film, and fourth-best for a non-sequel animated film. The success of the film validates the producer-driven approach to animated filmmaking taken by Illumination head Chris Meledandri, who exercises tight control over the casting, writing and creative direction of his films. It’s a page straight of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks playbook and, for better or worse, Meledandri is proving that it can work for producers without the initials JK.
Meanwhile, in its third weekend, Studio Ghibli’s The Secret World of Arrietty grabbed $1.5 million from 1,431 US theaters. The film landed in 14th place, but had the lowest per-theater average of any film in the top 20. Its US total now stands at $16.8 million.
Illumination Entertainment, the company responsible for Despicable Me and The Lorax, announced this week that it will produce a CGI remake of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The book has been adapted into film multiple times, most famously by Chuck Jones in a 1966 TV special (pictured above).
The new feature, which has no release date or writer yet, will be directed by Pete Candeland, who is best known for directing the Gorillaz music videos.
Illumination CEO Chris Meledandri produced his first Dr. Seuss project, Blue Sky’s Horton Hears a Who!, while he was the head of Fox Feature Animation. In addition to the Grinch project, Melendandri is developing a CG adaptation of Seuss’s Cat in the Hat and a live-action Dr. Seuss biopic.
Today, Toy Story 3 surpassed Finding Nemo as the top grossing domestic Pixar feature. However, as Box Office Mojo points out, “it will still rank in the bottom half in terms of estimated attendance.” In other words, an evening at the movies in the United States increasingly becomes an elitist activity for middle and upper-class audiences who can afford to pay inflated prices.
The big surprise at the box office was the stellar debut of Despicable Me which opened with an estimated $60.1 million. Even the most generous estimates pegged this in the $30-40 million range. Score one for producer-driven Katzenberg-style filmmaking. Looks like this won’t be the last we hear from Chris Meledandri and Illumination.
Actor Danny DeVito will voice an orange environmentalist in an animated adaptation of Dr. Seuss‘ beloved book, The Lorax. The film joins a long list of Seuss adaptations: The Cat in the Hat, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and Horton Hears a Who.