The producers and directors of Illumination Entertainment’s latest animated spy caper comedy talk about the film’s Annecy premiere and the challenges of keeping a successful franchise fresh.
Despicable Me 3, the third film in the wildly successful franchise from Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment, begins its international run today with its U.S. theatrical release. The animated spy caper comedy had its world premiere June 14 in the Annecy International Animation Festival’s main theatre, the Bonlieu Grand Salle, in front of what is arguably the most enthusiastic crowd of animation fans in the world. As you can imagine, the Annecy crowd went wild, the onslaught of paper airplanes and applause even greater than expected. They had the raucous pleasure of viewing one of the most anticipated films of the summer, from hometown favorite Illumination Mac Guff, the French studio that, under Illumination Entertainment CEO Chris Meledandri and veteran producing partner Janet Healy, has been responsible for a string of animated hits, including 2015’s Minions and last year’s blockbuster duo, The Secret Life of Pets and Sing.
“Premiering in Annecy is extremely meaningful for two reasons,” Meledandri explained. “One is because Annecy is comprised of people who love animation. To be able to premiere your film in front of an audience of animation fanatics is extremely gratifying. There’s also the aspect of the French perspective, which is such an important part of our films. The films are made largely by a crew comprised of French animators, and reflects a personality and artistry that I believe is very specific to France.”
When asked about the upcoming Annecy premiere, Healy shared Meledandri’s sentiment. “I’ve seen the film a million times, but Annecy will be the first time that I will see the completed film with an audience,” she noted. “I’m so proud of this film. I love this one dearly. Annecy always has the best audience -- everybody’s so effusive, the reception’s always so great.”
Her feelings were echoed by director Pierre Coffin, who has been coming to Annecy regularly since he was a student at Gobelins, the French animation and design school, more than two decades ago. “Each time I go to Annecy,” he said, “I discover all these wonderfully odd short films. I consider them little presents from the filmmaker to the audience. That’s what I always wish our movies to be. We’re making movies to try and please people, so that for a little while they forget all the problems in the world.”
And director Kyle Balda, also a longtime Annecy attendee, made it unanimous. “I’ve been to Annecy so many times, even before I started directing. So, to share our film, to present something that I worked on, is very special. Maybe it’s because the animators in the audience can appreciate so strongly all the work that goes into a film like this. They’re so passionate about the craft themselves -- there’s so much energy in the theatre. It’s incredibly exciting.”
Of course, a successful franchise means fan bases with expectations. With each new offering, studios must find ways to transfer the magic created in previous successes to new characters and storylines. For Meledandri, the key is continual evolution. “To keep the film fresh,” he said, “you must continue to evolve the stories of the characters, to evolve the visual expression of the film, while at the same time finding opportunities to discover new things in the creative expression. You’re also protecting what the audience loves about the past movies. You’re looking to find that combination of nurturing and preserving the elements that audiences have consistently embraced, while at the same time pushing into new terrain in terms of storytelling, character development and visual expression.”
“That’s the challenging part, for sure,” added Balda. “Trying to take the entire story into a place that Despicable Me fans haven’t seen before, keeping things fresh while staying on the edge. This maybe sounds strange, but the characters sort of start to tell you where they want to go, in terms of driving the story, looking for different situations they haven’t been in before.”
For Coffin, it’s important not to be too analytical and to avoid trying to guess what audiences want. Which is not to say that that makes it easy. “The pressure we put on ourselves is to say, ‘Okay, we’re not going to try and analyze what people liked in the first two movies. Let’s just make this thing evolve into something we still like that we haven’t done before.’ That’s our approach. It’s the pressure of working hard at trying to be as original as -- or more original than -- the previous movies.”
Healy concurred, adding, “There is pressure. Despicable Me is such a beloved franchise. It’s our tent-pole franchise and so dear to our hearts. To keep being so fortunate and making films that people want to see, that do well at the box office worldwide, we can’t let up the pressure on ourselves. Ever. It’s a healthy thing that we keep so much pressure on all the time.”
Ultimately, the enormous success of the Despicable Me franchise, the essence of the films’ appeal, is based on the unlikely and often awkward relationship between Gru and the three orphaned girls he adopts. According to Meledandri, it’s all about these main characters. “The characters are very flawed and yet they are tremendously appealing. They’re very funny. They struggle with issues that audiences can relate to. They are highly nuanced. I look at these performances and I can honestly say I can’t think of performances in animation coming from any other studio that I love as much as these.”
For Balda, it’s all about Gru. “One of our anchors in Despicable Me 3 is trying to respect what Gru’s arc has been so far,” he said. “He started as a villain, very self-serving. Then he was transformed by his relationship with the girls. And then he met a woman and got married. For all of Gru’s skepticism, though he’s got a dark cloud over his head most of time, he softens up when he’s with his daughters. But now, we’re taking away some of the things that he’s built his identity around, that make him feel confident, and we’re tempting him a little bit with returning to a life of villainy. We are challenging his character, making him more vulnerable, playing with temptation.”
“I think that these characters,” concluded Meledandri, “are just the best representation of what Illumination Mac Guff does so well.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.