Tag Archives: Blue Sky

The Problem With Illumination

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

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

illuminationBy 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.

Again, 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”.

I 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?

It’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)!

Rio 2

Rio2Rio 2 is Rio Again, with all the positives and caveats that such a statement entails.

by Callum Petch

24 hours before seeing Rio 2, I pushed play on Rio.  I figured that I should probably do my research before I went to go and see the new one and be a good film critic and all (one who, this weekend, has entered his fifth year of attempting to do this thing, woop woop).  Despite major trepidation on my part going on, it turned out to be pretty good.  It was often funny, had pretty great animation as long as no humans were heavily involved, some good songs, a great villain in the form of the Jemaine Clement-voiced Nigel and was, overall, pretty entertaining.  It also had a very formulaic and by-the-numbers plot, an unconvincing relationship between its two main characters, some dire voice acting from at least half of the cast and an air of disposability to proceedings.  Rio touched greatness enough for me to be disappointed and slightly annoyed that it never fully grasped it but, I must admit, it gave me a tonne of hope for Rio 2.

If I had seen Rio at the time it came out and written a review of it (and if my work from 2011 didn’t cause me to crawl into my skin and die every time I re-read it), I would likely have simply copy-pasted that review here, futzed around with some of the particulars and simply left this review at that.  Quite literally, bar two key new criticisms, this is the exact same way I felt once the credits rolled on the original Rio.  It’s not the same movie, but it has the exact same feel and the exact same things going for it and the exact same things working against it and it has been three years since the original you’d think they would have at least tried to fix those issues with the first one!

Here would be where I describe the plot to Rio 2 except that I’m still not entirely certain what the overall plot is.  Outside of Blu (Jesse Eisenberg, still surprisingly adept in the role) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway, still surprisingly underserved in the role) taking their children to the Amazon once their owners Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro, still really not very good in the role) and Linda (Leslie Mann, still all over the place in the role) discover a tribe of other Blue Spix’s Macaws, meaning that Blu’s family aren’t the only ones anymore, it’s a free-for-all.  Compared to Rio’s laser-sharp focus in plotting, although it was overstuffed in regards to characters it kept its plotlines down to two and both were related to each other, Rio 2 seems content to act as a feature-length version of one of those Simpsons episodes where the characters travel to far off places and stuff happens to them.

Naturally, this leads to a lack of focus, generic-ness in regards to the majority of the scenarios and certain plots being better than others.  Best of the lot involves the return of Nigel, now rendered flightless after the end of the first film and currently stuck in the Amazon as a street performer, whose passion for vengeance is reignited when he spots Blu and sets out to deliver it with the help of a dumb aardvark and a hopelessly infatuated poisonous frog named Gabbie (an excellent Kristin Chenoweth).  These play a lot like Ralph Wolf trying to catch himself a sheep, to begin with, but then Nigel keeps inadvertently wandering into other plots which switches up the formula and keeps it from getting stale.  He’s also, sadly, not in it enough which is damn shame as, especially, his scenes with Gabbie are comic gold, primarily because Clement and Chenoweth are that great in their roles.

The most main of the main plots involves Blu trying to fit in with the tribe, led by Jewel’s long lost father Eduardo (Andy Garcia).  This goes almost exactly as you’re expecting: Blu, a domesticated city-bird at heart, doesn’t acclimatise well to his new surroundings, Eduardo stops short of all but derisively shouting “CITY BOY!!” at him, his attempts to fit in screw things up for the tribe, Jewel shames his legitimate inability to fit in by all but going “it’s not this place’s fault, you’re just the selfish arsehole!” (which is a route I would very much like kids’ films, actually just all films in general, to stop going down for reasons that are too lengthy and off-topic to properly address here) until an outside threat causes Blu to step up and prove himself worthy of the tribe’s respect.  It couldn’t be more by-the-numbers if it tried but there are at least some good jokes here and a very fun football setpiece at the 2/3 mark, plus the final setpiece, which clumsily tries to link all of the other plots together, is very exciting.

As a subplot of that main plot, Blu also has to contend with feelings of inadequacy when Jewel is reunited with her childhood sweetheart Roberto (Bruno Mars; yes, really) and the strain on his relationship with Jewel caused by her homecoming and burgeoning desire to never leave again.  I will commend the film, by the way, for not making Roberto and Blu battle for Jewel’s affection.  Instead, Roberto completely respects the relationship that Blu and Jewel have and never once tries to make a pass at her.  It felt good to see the film sidestep such an obvious relationship roadblock, one designed purely for drama’s sake.  That goodwill is, of course, mostly evaporated by making Blu the unreasonable one in him and Jewel’s “should we or should we not stay in the Amazon” arguments despite having the more sympathetic viewpoint and mining that for drama’s sake, although it stops short of having the two break-up for five minutes.  Instead, Jewel shames him and then Blu seems ready to reluctantly make things work.  So… baby steps?  It’s too formulaic for me to get worked up over.

We’re still not done, though, as another subplot involves the returning will.i.am, Jamie Foxx and George Lopez as Black Comic Relief, Slightly Less Black Comic Relief and George Lopez, respectively.  They’ve followed the Blu family over to the Amazon in order to scout out talent for Rio’s upcoming Carnival but are really only here to make some very easy gags (or, in the case of Black Comic Relief, saying a bunch of random and often not funny words and sentences in a self-consciously wacky way in a vain attempt to make them funny) and to provide an excuse for the film having a couple more musical numbers.  On the subject of those, they’re fine if forgettable.  The best of them are Poisonous Love, which is at once hilarious and surprisingly poignant near the end (mostly because Chenoweth absolutely slays the Broadway-style number), and a parody of I Will Survive that retrofits certain lyrics to Nigel’s situation and throws in rap sections, dubstep breakdowns and pointless, lampshaded auto-tune in a very self-aware effort to be as stupid as possible.  The rest blend into one another, but at least there’s nothing on the “oh gods, make it stop” level of the various will.i.am numbers from the last film.

Finally, we have the adventures of Tulio and Linda as they attempt to pinpoint the exact location of the tribe of Blue Sphix’s Macaws and end up running afoul of, and I kid you not here, an illegal logging operation run by a thin, non-moustached Burt Reynolds lookalike who genuinely and frequently refers to the pair as “good-for-nothing tree-huggers”.  These guys are unrepentantly evil and the film plays every scene involving them as straight and dark as possible which is the worst possible thing it could have done.  Look, I get that Rio 2 wants to get its environmentalism message out there to the younger generation and good on it, it has every right to and should be doing, but it also leads to major tonal whiplash as we cut from Blu’s goof-ups at trying to win Eduardo’s approval to scenes of Linda being hunted through the forest by people who, and it’s all but explicitly stated, want to kill her.  And the film rarely comes back to this plotline, as if even it realises how misguided and out-of-place it is but ended up building its climactic final setpiece around it and, therefore, can’t just jettison it.  It’s from a much different film and should either have been severely rewritten or just plain dropped.

Oh, and if you’re looking forward to spending some quality time with Blu and Jewel’s kids, prepare to be disappointed.  They basically wander in and out of the film whenever they want.  Although, considering the overly stuffed nature of the film’s 101 minutes, that’s probably a wise decision.

I’ve spent so long running down the quality of each of Rio 2’s various plotlines because it helps elongate a review that would otherwise have been me making the exact same criticisms and praises of the first film.  The animation quality, for example, has both progressed greatly in the 3 years since Rio and, at the same time, seems to be stuck in 2011.  The stuff that looked great in the first film, mainly any of the animals and especially nice wide crowd shots of anything at all, looks excellent here; there definitely seems to be more detail when it comes to the way that individual feathers look and move than before, for example.  The stuff that didn’t look so good in the first film, namely the humans, still doesn’t look so good, only that “not good”-ness is now further enhanced by the great stuff looking fantastic.  Specifically, human movement still sits at an uncomfortable halfway house between realistic and cartoony, which creates a very uncanny and distractingly fake result in anything except wide and distant crowd shots.  Also, there’s still a suspicious-looking amount of Chroma Keying going on here (where the backgrounds and the characters are animated separately and then layered onto one another later in production), much like in the first film, and it’s very noticeable if you’re aware of the process.

Meanwhile, the voice cast pick up from where they left off in the first film.  Jesse Eisenberg is still surprisingly great as Blu, although that might be because the role plays to his pre-Social Network strengths.  Anne Hathaway still makes as much of an impression as her character does, which is little.  Jemaine Clement again gives the best performance of the entire cast seeing as he puts in this little thing called “effort” that Andy Garcia couldn’t be bothered with; the only reason Garcia isn’t the film’s worst voice actor is because william and Tracy Morgan return from the first film.  Kristin Chenoweth nails every single line and is clearly having a tonne of fun but the big surprise is, and I swear that I am being completely serious with you, Bruno Mars.  As Roberto, he spends most of the film delivering his lines in a breathy, rather emotionless kind of manner, like he thinks he’s portraying the epitome of suave and “HAVE MY BABIES” when he really, really isn’t.  Initially, I thought it was a bad performance.  And then he gets a freak-out scene, and he nails it so spectacularly that it made me realise that his earlier work wasn’t unintentionally bad, it was so purposefully bad that I didn’t realise the intention until he showed off how good he is at material with energy!  Give him a round of applause, he deserves it!

Rio 2, then, is a sequel to Rio that manages to be exactly as good as the original.  It has the same strengths (Nigel, some good songs, great animal animation and a good successful/unsuccessful gag ratio) and weaknesses (clichéd nature, poor human animation, half of a voice cast that’s either untalented or not bothered, and little desire to innovate or stick out in anybody’s memory more than a few hours after having seen it) as Rio but with the added caveat of having had three years to fix those problems.  I feel that Blue Sky could make a great Rio movie if they wanted to, but they instead seem content to settle for creating an above-average way to pass the time.  And whilst I can’t deny that I had some good fun with Rio 2, I hope it’s an attitude the company moves away from fast.  For if this same attitude gets applied to their upcoming Peanuts movie, then I and every other animation lover on the planet will be queuing up to burn their offices down.

Callum Petch is gonna gain again what he wants to steal.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!