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Within the first few minutes of Despicable Me 3, a few of the ubiquitous yellow, gibberish-spouting Minions maneuver an underwater vehicle past a host of sea creatures to catch up with their boss, Steve Carell’s Gru. Pointedly, the Minions use their vehicle to run over a pair of colorful clown fish, much like Marlin and his son, Nemo, from Pixar’s massively popular Finding Nemo and Finding Dory films. The gag takes up no more than five seconds, but it’s hard not to see this as a meta-commentary on an unavoidable truth: Over the last few years, Pixar’s greatest outside competition is now the upstart Illumination Entertainment.
Despicable Me 3, now in theaters, holds a 63 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but it has also inspired critics to argue the franchise is running on fumes. Hardly raves, but the film is on its way to a strong weekend at the box office.
When Pixar first arrived on the feature-film scene with Toy Story in 1995, it represented a sea change in the industry. Computer-animation technology had been progressing throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, utilized in live-action and hand-drawn animated films alike, from Young Sherlock Holmes to the opening-credits scene of The Rescuers Down Under. But Toy Story was eye-opening to Hollywood and audiences alike, the latter of whom presumably wanted more computer-animated films as the 21st century approached. By 1998, when Pixar was prepping A Bug’s Life, its second film, it had its first real competition: DreamWorks Animation, headed up by former Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. Though Walt Disney Animation Studios would eventually make computer-animated films of its own, there was never a sense that Pixar was directly competing with the studio as it was with DreamWorks, whose first computer-animated film was Antz, which felt awfully familiar to A Bug’s Life, especially since the latter opened just a month later.
For over a decade, Pixar and DreamWorks Animation remained rivals; the latter’s Shrek franchise was massively popular and took delight in mocking the Disney ethos, and films like Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon suggested that DreamWorks could please critics as well as audiences, just like Pixar. Since 2010, things have changed. DreamWorks has had a few successes, such as The Boss Baby and the Kung Fu Panda sequels, but it’s had some very public stumbles, from Turbo to the Penguins of Madagascar spinoff. In the last few years, DreamWorks Animation’s parent studio has shifted from Paramount Pictures to 20th Century Fox and now, finally, to Universal Pictures, where it’s overseen by none other than Illumination Entertainment’s Chris Meledandri. DWA has released 35 films in 20 years, and Illumination has released just eight over seven years, but the latter is in charge now.
There are a couple of simple reasons why Illumination has become this dominant, and Despicable Me 3 will likely not change that pattern, in spite of its being roughly as predictable and overly sitcommy as its predecessors are. While Pixar and DreamWorks Animation have differences in their films, one area in which they’re similar are in their budgets; in the last decade, no Pixar film has had a reported budget of under $150 million, and until this summer’s Captain Underpants, DWA hadn’t experimented with low-budget fare at all. (That film has grossed $71 million in spite of a reported $38 million budget.) Illumination, on the other hand, makes consistently midbudget animated films, between $70-75 million, and only their live-action/computer-animated 2011 hybrid Hop didn’t perform massively well at the box office. Despicable Me 2 grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide, Minions passed that milestone, and Despicable Me 3 is doing strong business so far.
It also helps that, as with DreamWorks‘ films, Illumination makes movies that are top-heavy with big-name stars, from Sandra Bullock in Minions to Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig in the Despicable Me movies to Louis C.K. and Kevin Hart in The Secret Life of Pets to Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon in Sing. Pixar’s not allergic to casting A-listers in its films (Tom Hanks in its very first film is a fine example), but it arguably doesn’t cast famous people just because they’re famous. The appeal, however, of a film like Sing isn’t just “A jukebox musical featuring anthropomorphized animals”; it’s “A jukebox musical where Reese Witherspoon and Scarlett Johansson sing!”
That speaks to the last big thing working for Illumination Entertainment: The hooks of its films are almost maddeningly direct. The elevator pitch for each of its films is simple: Despicable Me is “Bad guy turns good because of adorable kids”; Sing is that jukebox-musical-with-celebs idea; The Secret Life of Pets is “Toy Story, but with talking pets instead.” And so on. It’s too early to know for sure, but Despicable Me 3, as uninspired and dumb as it is (elevator pitch: “The bad guy has a twin brother!”), will likely hit with audiences just as the other entries in the franchise have. Their simplicity may be a bug for some critics, but it’s a feature to many in the theater.
Two weeks ago, Pixar released its latest film, Cars 3, to mild fanfare from critics and audiences. It, too, had a direct premise — talking cars! — but is likely going to fade from the box office when Despicable Me 3 begins its theatrical run. Pixar’s immediate future includes two big sequels and the original film Coco, while Illumination is embarking on sequels to Minions, Sing and The Secret Life of Pets, as well as an adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch. Qualitatively, there’s still no contest that Pixar is the best computer-animation studio in cinema, but just like 20 years ago, it has fierce competition from an underdog turned mammoth in the form of characters like the Minions.
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