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The Ultimate Illumination Film Guide: 2015-2019

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The Illumination Film Guide:
2010-2014 | 2015-2019

Illumination Entertainment, officially renamed Illumination in 2017, is an animation production company that was founded by Chris Meledandri in 2007 for Universal Studios. They hit instant success with their very first film Despicable Me and its sequel, Despicable Me 2. Despite this they could not rest on their laurels. Animation is a highly competitive business which has winners and losers. Animation studios such as Fox Animation Studios, Warner Bros. Feature Animation and ImageMovers had come and gone, with even successful studios like DreamWorks Animation facing an uncertain future. Illumination's challenge in this period was to turn their initial success with one film series into something greater, to become more than a one-hit wonder.

Below is a summary of the films made by Illumination in this period, with recurring characters and actors shown in Bold. Also mentioned is whether the films pass the The Bechdel Test. This can be summarised as whether the film involves two or more named female characters who have a conversation together that is not focused on men.

5. Minions (2015)

DirectorsPierre Coffin and Kyle Balda
PlotExisting since the dawn of time, the small, yellow Minions have always sought evil masters to serve. After a series of misadventures in 1968 three Minions find themselves at Villain-Con and enlist with Scarlet Overkill who plans to steal the Crown Jewels.
Length87 minutes
SettingThroughout history but particularly New York and London1, 1968
  • Bob, Kevin, Stuart, Minions (Pierre Coffin)
  • Scarlet Overkill, supervillain (Sandra Bullock)
  • Herb Overkill, her husband (Jon Hamm)
  • Walter Nelson, man travelling to Villain-Con (Michael Keaton)
  • Madge Nelson, his wife (Allison Janney)
  • Professor Flux (Steve Coogan)
  • Queen Elizabeth II (Jennifer Saunders)
  • Gru, young boy destined for greatness (Steve Carell)
  • Narrator (Geoffrey Rush)
MusicComposed by Heitor Pereira
Others in the Series
Spin OffsShorts unless stated:
  • Home Makeover (2010)
  • Orientation Day (2010)
  • Banana (2010)
  • Minion Mayhem (2012) – Theme Park attraction
  • Puppy (2013)
  • Panic in the Mailroom (2013)
  • Training Wheels (2013)
  • Binky Nelson Unpacified (2015)
  • Competition (2015)
  • Cro Minion (2015)
  • Mower Minions (2016)
  • The Secret Life of Kyle (2017)
  • Yellow is the New Black (2018)
BechdelNarrow Pass2

Minions was an incredible success on release, becoming the second-most successful animated film of all time, behind only Frozen (2013). The film has some fun cameos at Villain-Con, including Dr Nefario and El Macho from Despicable Me and even Gargamel from The Smurfs, with comic strip character Andy Capp appearing in the pub. Another clever touch is that Herb Overkill's carpet is the same pattern as that of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1980). Other cameos include the butler that appeared in Despicable Me 2 (2013) and an alley that would appear in The Secret Life of Pets.

6. The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

DirectorChris Renaud
PlotTerrier Max lives a happy life with his owner, Katie, and is close friends with his neighbouring pets. Yet when Katie adopts another dog, Duke, this life is threatened. Jealous, they fight until they end up lost together, heading for the pound. Can they work together in order to find their way back home through New York? Will their friends be able to find and rescue them from a vicious gang of sewer-dwelling human-haters called the Flushed Pets, led by a fluffy bunny?
Length83 minutes
SettingNew York, 21st Century
  • Max, Jack Russell terrier dog (Louis CK)
  • Duke, large, brown, hairy mongrel dog (Eric Stonestreet)
  • Snowball, white rabbit (Kevin Hart)
  • Gidget, white Pomeranian dog (Jenny Slate)
  • Katie, Max and Duke's owner (Ellie Kemper)
  • Chloe, grey tabby cat (Lake Bell)
  • Pops, elderly Basset hound (Dana Carvey)
  • Buddy, dachshund dog (Hannibal Buress)
  • Mel, a pug dog (Bobby Moynihan)
  • Ozone and Reginald, cats (Steve Coogan)
  • Tiberius, a red-tailed hawk (Albert Brooks)
  • Norman, a guinea pig (Chris Renaud)
  • Tattoo, an evil pig (Michael Beattie)
MusicSoundtrack by Alexandre Desplat. Songs include:
  • 'Welcome To New York' by Taylor Swift and Ryan Tedder
  • 'Spring: The Four Seasons' by Antonio Vivaldi
  • 'Bounce' by John Dolmayan, Daron Malakian, Shavo Odadjian and Serj Tankian
  • 'Stayin' Alive' by Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb, and Robin Gibb
  • 'You're My Best Friend' by John Deacon
  • 'Good Day' by Alan Wert, Vito Tisdale, Melvin Adams, and William Hughes
  • 'Life After The End Of The World' by James Bulloch and Matthew Sorg
  • 'We Go Together' by Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs
  • 'No Sleep Till Brooklyn' by Michael Diamond, Adam Horovitz, Adam Yauch, and Rick Rubin
  • 'Lovely Day' by Skip Scarborough and Bill Withers
  • 'Party Hard' by Andrew F Wilkes-Krier
  • Tattoo has a tattoo of the unicorn Gru won for Agnes in Despicable Me.
  • 'Happy' by Pharrell Williams briefly plays.
  • Gru can be glimpsed walking his dog in the background, just in front of the arch.
  • When going to what they think is a costume party, two dogs dress as a Barbaloot from Dr Seuss' The Lorax (2012) and a Minion.
  • The piranha seen in the Despicable Me films appears in the sewer.
  • A Sing poster is on the back of a bus.
Others in the Series
  • 10. The Secret Life of Pets 2 (2019)
Spin OffsShort films:
  • Weenie (2016)
  • Norman Television (2016)

Essentially the plot of Toy Story (1995) but with dogs instead of toys. Yet there is more than enough to keep eagle-eyed adult viewers watching, with references to films such as Alien, Saturday Night Fever and Some Like it Hot. The leader of the Flushed Pets group that is plotting an anti-human revolution is named Snowball after one of the two pigs in Animal Farm who lead the revolution against humans.

The film was the third most successful animated film of 2016, behind Pixar's Finding Dory and Disney's Zootopia, which on release were the fourth and fifth most successful animated films ever. On release it was the 12th most successful animated film ever. As with other Illumination films it had a very strong international appeal and it was quickly announced that a sequel was entering production for a 2019 release. In November 2017 it was announced that the sequel would not feature Louis CK as, following allegations made as part of the #MeToo movement, he had admitted sexual misconduct3. Max appears in the sequel voiced by another actor.

7. Sing (2016)

DirectorGarth Jennings
PlotVarious animals, each with their own backstory, enter a singing competition held at a dilapidated theatre run by Buster Moon, a failed theatre-enthusiast koala.
Length103 minutes
Theatre Staff & Stars
  • Buster Moon, koala theatre owner (Matthew McConaughey)
  • Eddie Noodleman, sheep and theatre investor (John C Reilly)
  • Miss Crawley, clumsy elderly iguana secretary (Garth Jennings)
  • Rosita, pig mother and housewife (Reese Witherspoon)
  • Mike, arrogant mouse (Seth MacFarlane)
  • Ash, porcupine teenage punk rocker (Scarlett Johansson)
  • Johnny, gorilla teenager who wants to sing but his father wants him to become a criminal (Taron Egerton)
  • Meena, teenage elephant with stage fright (Tori Kelly)
  • Gunter, dancing pig (Nick Kroll)
Other Characters
  • Nana Noodleman, famous retired sheep singer and Eddie's grandmother (Jennifer Saunders Young: Jennifer Hudson)
  • Big Daddy, gorilla gang leader and Johnny's father (Peter Serafinowicz)
  • Lance, Ash's ex-boyfriend (Beck Bennett)
  • Grandfather, elephant (Jay Pharoah)
  • Norman, Rosita's husband (Nick Offerman)
  • 'Golden Slumbers' by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
  • 'The Way I Feel Inside' by Rod Argent
  • 'I Don't Wanna' by Garth Jennings and David Bassett
  • 'Let's Face the Music and Dance' by Irving Berlin
  • 'Venus' by Robert van Leeuwen
  • 'Call Me Maybe' by Carly Rae Jepsen, Tavish Crowe and Josh Ramsay
  • 'Set It All Free' by Dave Bassett
  • 'Around the World' by Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo
  • 'Under Pressure' by Brian May, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, John Deacon, and Roger Taylor
  • 'Gimme Some Lovin'' by Muff Winwood, Spencer Davis, and Steve Winwood
  • 'The Wind' by Cat Stevens aka Yusuf
  • 'Shake It Off' by Taylor Swift, Johan Schuster and Max Martin
  • 'I'm Still Standing' by Elton John and Bernie Taupin
  • 'Bamboléo' by Simon Diaz, Tonino Baliardo, Jahloul Bouchikhi (as Jalhoul Bouchikhi), and Nicolas Reyes
  • 'Carry That Weight' by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
  • 'Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go' by George Michael
  • 'Hallelujah' by Leonard Cohen
  • 'My Way' by Paul Anka, Jacques Revaux, Gilles Thibaut and Claude François
  • 'Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing' by Stevie Wonder
  • 'Faith' by Ryan Tedder, Stevie Wonder and Francis Farewell Starlight
  • 'Oh.My.Gosh' by Anthony Ray, Onika Maraj, Jamal Jones, Jonathan Myvett, Marcos Palacios, and Ernie Clark
Spin OffsShort Films (2017):
  • Gunter Babysits
  • Love at First Sight
  • Eddie's Life Coach

This film is essentially every single feel-good talent show in miniature, ending with a performance that really brings the house down. Though the plot is rather thin, that is irrelevant as it is about the rollercoaster ride of emotions experienced if you care about the characters. Garth Jennings had previously directed The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005). The character of Ash the guitar-playing porcupine was inspired by Back to the Future and has many of the mannerisms of Marty McFly, as well as the ability to 'fire' her quills, which porcupines cannot do in reality.

This was the last film released as Illumination Entertainment rather than Illumination. This was the first time that Illumination had released two films in the same year and Sing was the fifth most successful, with The Secret Life of Pets third and Disney's Moana fourth.

8. Despicable Me 3 (2017)

DirectorsPierre Coffin and Kyle Balda

Husband and wife team Gru and Lucy both work for the Anti-Villain League until they fail to stop Balthazar Bratt, a former 1980s child star, from stealing a diamond. Sacked, Gru learns from his mother that he had a long-lost twin-brother, Dru, who lives abroad in Freedonia. Meanwhile most of the Minions decide to leave Gru as he is no longer evil. Gru, Lucy and their daughters visit Freedonia and discover that Dru is immensely wealthy because his father was a supervillain but was ashamed of Dru. Dru begs Gru to teach him how to be a villain, with Gru planning on stealing the diamond from Bratt to get his and Lucy's Anti-Villain League jobs back. Meanwhile Bratt plans on using the diamond inside a giant robot to wreak revenge on Hollywood for cancelling his show.

Will Lucy get the hang of motherhood? Will Edith find a unicorn in the woods? Can Gru and Dru steal the diamond? What will the Minions do without Gru?

Length86 minutes
SettingFictional country of Freedonia, and Hollywood in the present day
  • Gru, retired supervillain, fired Anti-Villain League agent, father and husband (Steve Carrell)
  • Dru, Gru's wealthy long-lost brother (Steve Carrell)
  • Lucy, Anti-Villain League agent, Gru's wife and now mother to his children (Kristen Wiig)
  • Balthazar Bratt, former child-star turned '80s-obsessed villain (Trey Parker)
  • Margo, Gru's oldest daughter (Miranda Cosgrove)
  • Edith, Gru's middle daughter (Dana Gaier)
  • Agnes, Gru's youngest, unicorn-obsessed daughter (Nev Scharrel)
  • Silas Ramsbottom, retiring Anti-Villain League director (Steve Coogan)
  • Marlena, Gru and Dru's mother (Julie Andrews)
  • Valerie Da Vinci, new Anti-Villain League director (Jenny Slate)
  • Minions, including Kevin, Bob, Stuart, Bob (Pierre Coffin)
MusicComposed by Pharell Williams unless stated:
  • 'Yellow Light'
  • 'Hug Me' by Pharrell Williams & Trey Parker
  • 'Bad' by Michael Jackson
  • 'Take on Me' by Pal Waaktaar, Morten Harket and Magne Furuholmen
  • 'Papa Mama Loca Pipa' (based on 'I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General' by WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan)
  • 'There's Something Special'
  • 'Freedom'
  • 'Doowit'
  • '99 Luftballons' by Carlo Karges & Jorn-Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen
  • 'Into the Groove' by Madonna & Stephen Bray
  • 'Chuck Berry'
  • 'Fun, Fun, Fun'
  • 'Despicable Me'
Others in the Series
  • 1. Despicable Me (2010)
  • 4. Despicable Me 2 (2013)
  • 5. Minions (2015)
Spin OffsShorts unless stated:
  • Home Makeover (2010)
  • Orientation Day (2010)
  • Banana (2010)
  • Minion Mayhem (2012) – Theme Park attraction
  • Puppy (2013)
  • Panic in the Mailroom (2013)
  • Training Wheels (2013)
  • Binky Nelson Unpacified (2015)
  • Competition (2015)
  • Cro Minion (2015)
  • Mower Minions (2016)
  • The Secret Life of Kyle (2017)
  • Yellow is the New Black (2018)

This was the first film released as Illumination rather than Illumination Entertainment, with the letters spelling 'minion' highlighted to emphasise the studio's connection with their popular characters. Elsie Fisher no longer plays Agnes. At one point the Minions visit a theatre, which is hosting a Sing! show - other than the title, it has no connection with the earlier film of that name and does not feature recurring characters.

Financially, Despicable Me 3 was a huge success. It was not only the most successful animated film of the year, it became the fourth most successful animated film - and 25th most successful film - of all time.

9. Dr Seuss' The Grinch (2018)

DirectorsScott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney
PlotThe Grinch is an unloved outcast with a heart two sizes too small who lives in a cave on the top of Mount Crumpit, alone but for his loyal dog, Max. At the bottom of the mountain is the town of Whoville, where the Whos noisily celebrate Christmas, much to the Grinch's annoyance. At the same time as young Cindy Lou Who decides to trap Santa in order to ask him to help her overworked and exhausted mother, the Grinch decides to get revenge for all the lonely Christmases he had endured as an orphan. Disguised as Santa, he plans to steal Christmas - every morsel, gift and bauble. Will the Grinch be able to find a reindeer to pull his sleigh on Christmas night? Will the Grinch steal Christmas or be trapped and caught green-handed?
Length86 minutes
SettingDecember, Whoville and neighbouring Mount Crumpit
  • The Grinch, a grumpy green creature who hates Christmas (Benedict Cumberbatch)
  • Max, his dog
  • Cindy Lou Who, a young girl (Cameron Seely)
  • Donna Lou Who, Cindy's overworked single mother (Rashida Jones)
  • Bricklebaum, the jolliest person in Whoville and who likes the Grinch (Kenan Thompson)
  • Fred, an overweight reindeer
  • Mayor McGerkle (Angela Lansbury)
  • Groopert, Axl, Ozzy & Izzy, Cindy Lou's friends (Brad O'Hare, Ramone Hamilton, Sam Lavagnino, Scarlett Estevez)
  • Narrator (Pharrell Williams)
MusicSoundtrack composed by Danny Elfman, songs by Tyler the Creator, except 'You're a Mean One, Mr Grinch' lyrics by Theodor 'Dr Seuss' Geisel, music by Albert Hague
Related Films
  • Dr Seuss' The Lorax (2012)

An outstanding animated adaptation that retells the classic story and rewards repeat viewings to catch the background details. This is the third adaptation of the tale with by far the least grumpy Grinch to date. While the story itself holds no surprises, it remains a heart-warming Christmas tale. Illumination have particularly excelled with the character of Max who, despite being silent throughout the film, says the most with his wonderful expressions. Illumination have certainly used the experience gained on The Secret Life of Pets to great effect.

Dr Seuss' The Grinch was the fourth most-successful film of the year, behind only Pixar's Incredibles 2, Disney's Ralph Breaks the Internet and Sony Pictures Animation's Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation.

10. The Secret Life of Pets 2 (2019)

DirectorChris Renaud
PlotAfter Max's owner Katie marries and has a son, Liam, Max grows increasingly nervous, afraid that the toddler cannot survive the dangers of the world. This leads to him developing a constant nervous tic that means he has to wear a dog cone. When his family are taken to a farm he meets a dog called Rooster who believes dangers should be faced head on rather than avoided. Meanwhile, his friend Gidget disguises herself as a cat to infiltrate a flat owned by a cat lady and Snowball rescues a white tiger from an evil circus master.
Length86 minutes
SettingNew York, 21st Century
  • Max, Jack Russell terrier dog (Patton Oswalt)
  • Duke, large, brown, hairy dog (Eric Stonestreet)
  • Snowball, white rabbit who wants to be a superhero (Kevin Hart)
  • Gidget, white Pomeranian dog (Jenny Slate)
  • Daisy, Shih Tzu who has befriended Hu, a tiger (Tiffany Haddish)
  • Chloe, chubby grey tabby cat (Lake Bell)
  • Sergei, evil circus ringmaster (Nick Kroll)
  • Katie, Max and Duke's owner and Liam's mother (Ellie Kemper)
  • Pops, elderly Basset hound (Dana Carvey)
  • Norman, a guinea pig (Chris Renaud)
  • Rooster, wise Welsh sheepdog (Harrison Ford)
  • Chuck, Katie's husband and Liam's father (Pete Holmes)
  • Liam, a toddler (Henry Lynch)
  • Buddy, a dachshund (Hannibal Buress)
  • Mel, a pug (Bobby Moynihan)
Others in the Series
  • 6. The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

The Secret Life of Pets 2 was the fifth most successful animated film of the year4 behind Disney's Frozen II, Pixar's Toy Story 4, China's Beijing Enlight Pictures film Ne Zha, and DreamWorks Animation's How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. Patton Oswalt replaced disgraced voice artist Louis CK as the main character of Max. Though the plot is fairly predictable and not one of their stronger efforts, this sequel is full of cute animal action that should appeal to younger viewers. The Secret Life of Pets is Illumination's third series following the Despicable Me/Minions and Dr Seuss adaptations.

Into the Future

By the end of 2019, seven of Illumination's first nine films5 made the top 50 most successful animated films of all time, with three in the top ten. In fact, the Despicable Me series (including Minions) has overtaken Shrek to become the most successful animated series of all time.

In 2016 Illumination's parent company, NBCUniversal, purchased DreamWorks Animation. Though it was expected that Illumination's Chief Executive Officer Chris Meledandri would also became the head of DreamWorks Animation, they remain separate divisions of the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group as of 2020. Whether Universal's new ownership of DreamWorks Animation, a longer-established animation studio, will affect Illumination is something that only time will tell.

1Albeit a London that inexplicably has American red fire hydrants.2Madge Nelson asks her daughter Tina what she wants to do at Villain-Con and she replies.3He had frequently asked women to watch him masturbate, reportedly using his position of power to discourage women from disagreeing.4Excluding the more successful live-action remake of The Lion King.5Minions 3rd, Despicable Me 3 5th, Despicable Me 2 8th, The Secret Life of Pets 14th, Sing 26th, Despicable Me 37th and The Grinch 47th.

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