Chris Meledandri and his Minions factory Illumination Entertainment took the stage at Cinema-Con to wow exhibitors with new footage and project revelations that included setting Benedict Cumberbatch to voice the title character in How The Grinch Stole Christmas, the Pete Candeland-directed animated feature based on the Dr Seuss creation that Universal releases November 10, 2017.
Meledandri during Universal’s presentation teased some footage of that and also showed the first 10 minutes of the July 8 release The Secret Life Of Pets, directed by Despicable Me’s Chris Renaud with a voice cast that includes Kevin Hart and Louis C.K., and the first 20 minutes of the December 21 release Sing, directed by Son Of Rambow’s Garth Jennings, with a voice cast headed by Matthew McConaughey, Scarlett Johansson, Reese Witherspoon and Taron Egerton.
Not to be outdone, the Minions got their moment too: Meledandri showed some early footage from Despicable Me 3 featuring South Park‘s Trey Parker as the new villain Balthazar Bratt — looking like a refugee from a mid-’80s MTV video — and Steve Carell voicing a new role as well in the threequel to be directed by Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda and co-directed by Eric Guillon. He also showed a short film, Mower Minions, that will be shown with Secret Life Of Pets. (See the latest trailers for Pets and Sing below.)
It is an ambitious slate for a company that started with a Universal deal eight years ago, in a most modest fashion. “It was myself, an assistant, and a borrowed office, and today we’re over 800 people.” Fueled by the success of first release Despicable Me, Illumination’s films have grossed $3.2 billion, and hatched the Minions theme park attraction. While many competitors are retelling classic stories in animated form, Meledandri has made original creations a priority. An exception is Grinch, his third Dr Seuss project (he made Horton Hears A Who while running Fox Animation and The Lorax at Illumination). It is a subtle departure from the animated holiday TV classic and the Ron Howard-directed live-action Universal hit that starred Jim Carrey.
“What we’ve set out to do with this telling of the Grinch is make it both modern and traditional at the same time,” Meledandri told Deadline. “When I say that I mean from a traditional standpoint, we’ve really tried to go back to what we perceive as the essence of what Ted Geisel was communicating. What I love about his work is that at the center of it, of all of his stories, are very, very simple and universal ideas. The last telling of the Grinch focused a little bit more on the commercialization of Christmas and how the commercialization of Christmas can lead us down the wrong path.
“For me, in reading what Geisel wrote, I view it more from a character perspective. I think that the essence of this film is the notion of this cynicism comedically expressed in the Grinch and this absolute innocence represented in Cindy Lou, on a collision course with one another through the course of this movie. It’s the simple question of whether or not innocence can transform cynicism. The beauty of that simplicity for me is what’s at the heart of the movie. In the experience of the movie I love the sort of wicked comedic aspect of this character the Grinch and I think that what you’ll see is from the very, very early animation tests, very raw, you’ll see that there’s an undeniable appeal in the character in spite of that kind of wicked persona, and I find that very, very, appealing and attractive.
“Our choice in directors on one hand, Yarrow Cheney, who’s come up through our process of having been a production designer and now co-director and directed one of the sweetest shorts we ever made, called Puppy, combined with Pete Candeland who is really best known for his work co-directing all the animated Gorillaz videos. The modern and the traditional coming together. And I think our choice in voice will also immediately suggest the distinction of the film.”
While it has generated hit after hit, Illumination has focused its ambitions over the years. Originally meant to be half financed by Universal (the studio eventually and smartly staked the whole thing), there have been suggestions it could be spun off like DreamWorks Animation. There were also expectations the family film label would move into live action. Meledandri said he and his cohorts are so pleased with their animated efforts, and the collaboration and support from Comcast and Universal’s Jeff Shell and Donna Langley, that there is no reason to change anything in success. He’s got an animation factory — Illumination Mac Guff — hidden in the parking garage of an Alfa Romeo dealership within spitting distance of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. He aligned with producer Janet Healy early and works again and again with talent like franchise anchor Steve Carell, and director Renaud and writers Cinco Paul, Ken Dario and Bryan Lynch, who lead an army of animators from one big movie to the next. It was a strategy that Meledandri learned while running Fox Animation and set up the Blue Sky factory that led to Ice Age and other hits. He sees no reason to veer from what is working.
“I’m completely happy in the sandbox that I’m in, while reserving the right to be opportunistic, if I were to fall in love with something that happens to be live action,” Meledandri said. “It’s really more about an opportunity that might present itself. We’re very happy making the films that we’re making.”
This will be good news to the brass at Universal. When Illumination started with its Despicable Me successes, the studio couldn’t seem to buy a hit, otherwise. Now, all the franchises are working and new ones are cropping up, and Meledandri is pleased to be a piece of the whole.
“There was a drought back then, but the studio has built other successes, culminating in this most extraordinary year in the history of the movie business,” he said. “It remains very gratifying to just be part of the energy and the momentum surrounding this well-deserved, hard-earned success of last year and the interim steps that got them there. Comcast and Steve Burke have been very supportive; Ron Meyer has been the constant, and the choice to bring Jeff in for his leadership but preserve the sort of creative excellence that Donna represents, these were very smart decisions that have continued to result in a company that is unbelievably supportive for somebody who’s trying to do what we do.”
Here’s the latest Pets trailer:
Here’s the Sing trailer: