Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Despicable Musical: Details on Illumination's Untitled Musical, The Studio's Future


At Annecy, Illumination founder and chief Chris Meledandri revealed some details about the studio's mystery 2016 release. 2016, interestingly enough, is the first year the studio will release two features...

Up until now, we knew that this enigmatic production was going to be directed and written by Garth Jennings (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), it would star Matthew McConaughey, and that it is currently pegged for a December 21, 2016 release...

At the Q&A, it was revealed that McConaughey is voicing a koala named Buster, who happens to be a theater owner. His friend is a black sheep, currently unnamed, and he'll be voiced by John Riley. After doing some surfing, all I can ask is... Who's that? Or did Variety's writer make a typo and meant to say John C. Reilly?

Now this other detail is interesting...

The film is set in a world where... There are no humans, but anthropomorphic animals who do human things!

Well... Insert "This sounds like Zootopia!" comment here.

I wonder what Illumination's all-animal world will be like. It'll be interesting to see two different, unique takes on this concept in the same year. Zootopia, of course, isn't the first animated anything to be set in a world where anthropomorphic animals dominate. As for why Illumination's film is coming out around the same time as Zootopia? Well, great minds think alike... Certainly nothing new in the world of animated features. Well, in one case many years ago it was nasty politics, but... Moving on!

The main plot itself?

The story follows Buster’s problem with his theater, which is empty. To save it, Buster comes up with the idea of a local singing competition.

Meledandri shared more details...

"The movie ends up becoming the story of the lives of the five characters vying to win the competition," adding the movie has "parts of about 85 songs," all known. "But it doesn’t become a story about winning the competition but about character, and that’s ultimately because any of our films have the potential to be successful because they’re about character," Meledandri said at an Annecy Fest keynote/Q&A..."

The good thing is, the main story is significantly different from Disney Animation's feature, and will be music-driven. Disney Animation's film is a mystery story that will be action-packed, this sounds like it's its own beast altogether. Plus, a singing competition? Well, at least it's not the good guys vs. bad guys story that's all too common in American feature animation.

Also, 85 songs? All known, pre-existing songs? How would familiar hits exist in the world they are setting up? (Unless they have contact with the human world, but who knows if they'll go that far...) And before anyone brings up Strange Magic, this could work if it's pulled off right. I haven't seen Strange Magic, but it seems like they tried to weave hit songs into a big fantasy story, whereas this will be about a music competition.

Plus, with Mr. Jennings directing, it's sure to be something quite different.

After presenting that feature, Meledandri spilled a few details on their adaptation of How The Grinch Stole Christmas. He said that they'll be going back to Dr. Seuss' "original intention". I have no idea how that'll turn out, because their adaptation of The Lorax was mediocrity and it goes against the book. In fact, Dr. Seuss-based movies have a poor track record so here's hoping that they can somehow stretch that tale to 90 minutes without filler that does not work. Pipe dream?

I guess if it's not all that good, at least it'll be better than the pretty bad Ron Howard Grinch film. I understand a lot of people my age love that film, though that could be out of nostalgia more than anything else. I liked it back then, but I was always drawn to Chuck Jones' take on the story.

Meledandri also spoke about Chinese computer animation, and how that's progressing. Not surprising, for it was reported a little while back that Illumination had an adaptation of a space-set Korean animated short called Johnny Express in the works. Illumination, from the very start, was all about overseas work. Their films are animated by a French studio called MacGuff, which they acquired in 2011. Best of all, their films are made for lower budgets (we're talking below $80 million here) and end up looking great! I always thought their strategy was very smart...

Lastly, this quote...

“Embrace risk. The driving force behind our economic model at Illumination Mac Guff is designed to preserve the opportunity to take risk. Subvert the expectation of the audience. Surprise them with unexpected choices.”

Illumination, I think, had something of a rough start. I like Despicable Me a great deal, and after re-watching it the other night, I still am very fond of it. I think it balances zany comedy, silly stuff, and a pretty good story quite well without feeling cliche or anything. It has everything I don't like about your typical family animated feature in it, but it all works, shockingly enough. The cute stuff isn't shoehorned in, the funny stuff is inventive and well-timed, the heartfelt stuff works, I like the aesthetic too!

On the surface it seems so basic and bland: Silly sidekicks, a second act twist where something sad happens and all seems lost and there's a scene where the characters mope, a good-vs-evil battle at the end, a montage or two set to a popular song... But it works because the slapstick is great, the comedy aims for both kids and adults (with a surprising dose of dark humor), the various gadgets and tech that Gru and Vector have are very cool, it's witty, the style is quirky, and the story isn't all over the place. Yes, I think the first Despicable Me is a very good film! It doesn't do anything new for feature animation whatsoever, but it really works wonders with what it has. It's not great, per se, but it's a simple entertaining romp done right. And how!

But then there's kiddie-flick Hop, and The Lorax basically had everything Despicable Me had, but none of it worked this time. I found Despicable Me 2 to be forgettable, despite that it tried to do some of the things its predecessor did right (the girls wanting a mom stuff, I thought, took a backseat to everything else and felt phoned in), and it also had a dull villain. I can only imagine how Minions will turn out. Reception seems alright, but I'm kind of burnt out on the Minions to be honest. (I reckon you fellow readers see Minion memes constantly on Facebook...) Despicable Me 3? All I ask for is more Gru & co., dial down the Minions stuff, and get a cool villain for them to face off against.

The Secret Life of Pets can be really fun. For me, it sounds a lot like Despicable Me, in that it's so simple. But the execution matters, and if it pulls everything off with style, I'll be happy. This musical sounds more interesting. Illumination has some projects in the works that also sound promising, like an adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's Pluto and a film based on Emily the Strange. In the works alongside those are some live-action pictures like an adaptation of Jonathan Straud's Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase. I wish it were animated though. Most adaptations and safer projects were shown the door, like Clifford the Big Red Dog, Woody Woodpecker, and Uglydoll. The remaining ones are The Cat in the Hat, Curious George, and Flanimals.

Lastly, there's Johnny Express, based on the Korean short of the same name...


The short is very clever and quirky, and I really like its look. It seems perfect for Illumination, so hopefully they go through with it, and they keep the short's sense of humor. Perhaps they'll co-produce it with a Korean studio, maybe the one that made the short!

All in all I think Illumination has potential, and I think we'll see some cool stuff from them in the future, particularly in next year's offerings. Let's hope the studio takes some risks in the future!

What do you think of these projects? Do you think this studio has a lot of potential?

1 comment:

  1. Sounds to me more like "Cats Don't Dance" than "Zootopia".

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