Digital animation start-up Illumination Entertainment burst onto the scene last year with its debut feature, Despicable Me, a modestly-budgeted (by animation standards) tale of a supervillain-turned-father of the year that went on to earn over a half-billion dollars worldwide, surpassing even the rosiest box-office estimates. With expectations running high, Illumination aims to build on that success with the help of … a bunny that poops jelly beans?
Yes, a bunny that poops jelly beans. That’s just one of the signature twists to the Easter Bunny mythos to be found in the company’s sophomore effort, Hop, a combination live-action/cg-animated comedy starring Russell Brand as the voice of E.B., a young hare who’d rather whale on his drumset than deliver Easter baskets to candy-starved children.
In an exclusive interview with Hollywood.com, Illumination CEO Chris Meledandri explained how the whole jelly bean excrement thing came to be, and provided updates on two of his company’s much-anticipated upcoming projects, The Lorax, based on the popular Dr. Seuss book, and a Tim Burton-directed reboot of The Addams Family, as well:
What drove the decision to make Hop a combination of live-action and CG-animation as opposed to all-CG?
It never occurred to us that this film would live in any other expression except a combination of real-world and cg-world, just by the very nature of this notion that we’re going to reveal aspects of a mythology that we’re all very familiar with, that we’re going to add depth to that mythology and part the curtain and look behind it. And the notion that the son of the Easter Bunny is going to come into our world and come into the life of a human character just immediately suggested that mode of expression. We sought to integrate it with this other, fantastical world, but to do it in a way that was utterly convincing and real, so that audiences would suspend disbelief.
A key portion of that new mythology you mentioned is that you have an Easter Bunny that excretes jelly beans. How did that idea originate, and were there any debates about how it might be received by audiences?
That idea belongs to our writers. For me, that idea -- that one of the qualities of the Easter Bunny is that they poop jelly beans – took me a while to settle into. As ridiculous as it seems for us to be talking about the nuance of this idea … I don’t think I really appreciated the idea until Tim [Hill] and Chris Bailey, the animation director, and the team that animated it did the most ridiculously funny, nuanced performance of this act actually happening. So it was like all of the sudden, through the acting, it transcended the idea of a character pooping jelly beans because the acting is so amazing in that moment. But I do have to say that I was probably the last guy to board the “pooping jelly beans” train.
I can’t help but wonder how many children will be asking their parents if that’s where jelly beans really come from.
I know. It’s just one of those things where I think it’s best not to think too much about it. And the only reason I can tell you that is because I’ve actually done all of that thinking about it, and it hasn’t led me anyplace good. And yet every time people see the movie, they laugh harder at that scene than almost anything else. So I’ve gone through all of these conversations in my head – and with the team – and now they get to look at me and say, “Remember all those conversations you made us have about this, and your anxiety about it? Just listen to the audience’s response.” And I go, “Okay, all right.”
Your next film in the pipeline is The Lorax. Obviously, since it’s a Dr. Seuss book, you’re wedded to a certain animation style. How do you effectively differentiate it from previous Dr. Seuss films without betraying the source material?
It is, absolutely, a primary issue that we deal with. I’d done Horton, and it’s very important to me that, in choosing to do another film, I’m not re-living something that we’ve already done. I have very, very strong feelings about Ted Geisel, the stories that he told, and the role that he played in the last century. I’m very committed to continuing his legacy. There were a couple of really great things that he gave us. One is the incredible character of the Lorax himself. The first threshold issue that we faced when Audrey Geisel asked me to explore The Lorax, the first issue was: Can we translate that very simple line-drawn [character] into a fully realized, dimensional character. The Lorax himself, as a character, is very distinctive, and while he has the Geisel signature, he’s very different from The Cat or Horton or The Grinch. He’s sort of the defining center of the film. The other thing is that The Lorax was a book that [Geisel] illustrated toward the end of his career, in 1971, and he departed from his regular color palette. Which opened another door for us in terms of giving it a distinctive look. As you go through the iconic elements in the book, he gave us little doorways that really helped us to create a film that is going to be distinctly different from Horton, which is what I [reference], because it’s the only other CG-animated Dr. Seuss film.
Your stop-motion Addams Family project appears to be gaining momentum. What’s its status right now?
Well, we hired Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski to write the script, and they’ve got a great working relationship with Tim Burton. It’s in the scripting stage now, and I’d say it’s probably going to stay there for the next six months.
I imagine a lot of it’s dependent on Burton and his schedule, as well.
It’s entirely dependent on Tim and his schedule. If everything goes according to plan, we still wouldn’t be able to start production until Frankenweenie winds down. So if everything falls into place, our progress can’t move faster than Frankenweenie will allow.
You’ve got a pretty ambitious slate of upcoming projects, including a sequel to Despicable Me. Do you feel that the success of Despicable Me, which surpassed just about everyone’s expectations, bought Illumination a little breathing room, now that you’ve sort of proven your mettle?
It’s funny, because a lot of people ask me whether or not the success of Despicable Me puts more pressure on me, and I actually never looked at it that way. I looked at it similarly to what you have suggested, that it give me more breathing room. The challenges of the success of Despicable Me are quite unique; it’s really the challenge to not allow the success of it to distract you from what the original strategy is. And the original strategy was to make films that are reflective of ideas and themes and characters that I hope will connect with audiences, but to do that for budgets that will allow us to have a greater chance at profitability. I feel that once you get to that place where the pressure that you’re placing on the film is to perform as a blockbuster, that that dictates so many decisions and takes away from the ability of the core creative team to just make their movie. So the challenge is to stay disciplined and hold to that strategy, and to accept the fact that every film is going to have a different result. As great as it is to be a part of a movie as successful as Despicable Me, Hop will have its own result.
Hop is now playing in theaters everywhere.