Thursday, July 18, 2024

Why Illumination’s Box Office Hits Miss Out On Oscar Success

Across fourteen movies, the animation studio Illumination has had its features gross just over $9.7 billion. The impending “Despicable Me 4” is bound to bring that number past $10 billion, a staggering achievement for a studio that didn’t even exist on anyone’s radar fifteen years ago. A combination of low budgets and films that can easily translate to any territory on the planet has served the company well. Illumination titles like the “Despicable Me” sequels, “Sing” movies, or “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” are cookie-cutter fare devoid of much personality, which makes them easily consumable by the masses. They’re incredibly popular with the general public and reliable box office moneymakers.

What’s one place in which Illumination could be more successful? The Oscars. Illumination’s entire history at this awards show has been confined to a pair of nominations for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song for “Despicable Me 2.” It’s not like every single title nominated for Best Animated Feature has been a critically acclaimed artistic feat, as films such as Oscar nominees “Shark Tale” and “The Boss Baby” have shown us in the past. So what’s going on? Why hasn’t Illumination scored as much Oscar love as other animation studios?

It can be easily suggested that Disney’s reign over the category (and the industry at large) is the sole reason behind this exclusion. Indeed, the Best Animated Feature category belongs to the Mouse House, and all other animation studios are typically left out in the cold. Disney has an iron grip on the Best Animated Feature category, with Pixar and Walt Disney Animation studios amassing 15 wins and 31 nominations since the category’s inception in 2001. Many Oscar voters seem to vote for nominations and winners in this category simply by choosing what features their kids like or what comes affixed with the Disney logo.However, Disney’s domination of this category hasn’t excluded other animation houses from scoring several Best Animated Feature Oscar nominations and wins. Netflix Animation has had four movies nominated in this category, with “Klaus,” “Over The Moon,” “The Sea Beast,” and “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” winning in 2022. Ditto Aardman with “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit” (which won the Oscar), “The Pirates! Band Of Misfits,” “Shaun The Sheep Movie,” “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon” and Cartoon Saloon with “The Secret Of Kells,” “Song Of The Sea,” “The Breadwinner,” and “Wolfwalkers.” Laika has had all six of its motion pictures (including the 2005 co-production “Corpse Bride”) nominated in this category with “Coraline,” “ParaNorman,” “The Boxtrolls,” “Kubo And The Two Strings,” and “Missing Link.” Even Sony Pictures Animation has been up for this award on five separate occasions, with “Surf’s Up” (only their second motion picture at the time of its release), “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” (Co-production between Aardman Animations and Sony Pictures Animation), “Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse” (won the category), “The Mitchells vs. The Machines,” and most recently, last year’s “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse.” It doesn’t hurt to be a Disney film in this category, as they have the best track record overall. As these other studios have shown, it is possible to get into Best Animated Feature at the Oscars and not hail from the Mouse House. So why haven’t Illumination’s titles broken through?

In hindsight, Illumination’s very first title may have just narrowly missed out on a Best Animated Feature nomination. The well-reviewed 2010 sleeper hit “Despicable Me” carried over its positive summertime reception to Best Animated Film nominations at that year’s BAFTA awards, Critics’ Choice Awards, and Golden Globe award ceremonies. It even scored a Producers Guild of America nomination for Best Animated Motion Picture. That all seemed to be pointing towards an inevitable Best Animated Feature Oscar nod for Gru’s inaugural movie. However, the 83rd Academy Awards that year were the last ceremony to allow only three nominations in the Best Animated Feature category, with “Toy Story 3,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” and “The Illusionist” getting in over it. Had it been five nominees, it’s very likely “Despicable Me,” alongside “Tangled” (another Disney title), would’ve rounded out the category.

After “Despicable Me’s” exclusion from the Oscars, 2013’s sequel, “Despicable Me 2,” would go on to score a Best Animated Feature nomination, which could be seen as a bit of a consolation prize for the Academy overlooking the first movie. Along with the Best Original Song nomination for “Despicable Me 2’s” smash hit single “Happy,” this has been to this day Illumination’s only presence at the Academy Awards. What’s kept the studio’s output from being more Oscar-friendly? Simply put, an emphasis on franchises has helped Illumination’s box office track record and has not ingratiated the studio with Oscar voters. In the history of this category, only 12 sequels have been nominated across 99 nomination slots. Several major sequels from companies as big as Disney (like “Frozen II” or “Monsters University”) have even missed out on nominations in the category.If an animated sequel does manage to secure an Oscar nomination, it has to meet the high standard set by films like “Toy Story 3” or “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse,” critically and financially. The more mixed responses to “Sing 2” or “Minions” are not enough to secure a nomination amongst the voting branch. Similarly, adaptations of old Dr. Seuss books like “The Lorax” and “The Grinch” have not garnered enough critical praise to catch the Academy’s attention either. The qualities that make Illumination’s films successful, such as their guaranteed global appeal, also put them at odds with the elements that typically define traditional Best Animated Feature Oscar nominees. With the Academy becoming more international in recent years and the industry pushing for a broader acceptance of animation across the board as more than just “films for kids,” this has inevitably hurt Illumination’s chances as most of its films are targeted towards that demographic. Suffice it to say, you’re not going to see Illumination developing animated films for kids and adults with more mature appeal for international voters, such as “The Boy And The Heron,” any time soon.

Illumination’s films have also failed to score nominations outside of the Best Animated Feature category save for the Best Original Song nomination for “Despicable Me 2’s” “Happy.” This is also not tremendously shocking, mostly because animated films generally struggle to garner Oscar love beyond Best Animated Feature to begin with. If something as acclaimed and beloved as last year’s “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse” was confined to just Best Animated Feature, you can bet your buttons “The Secret Life Of Pets” wasn’t going to get into Best Original Screenplay! The two “Sing” movies seemed like ample opportunities for the studio to secure Best Original Song nominations. However, the rampant marketing for the “Sing” installments emphasized that they were karaoke musicals. Even last year’s Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Award-nominated song “Peaches” from the ultra-worldwide hit “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” couldn’t get the Academy to take it seriously enough for a nomination despite a massive campaign from Illumination and performer Jack Black.

So where does that leave “Despicable Me 4?” Based on Illumination’s history with the Oscars, this sequel (let alone a third sequel with a 71% on Rotten Tomatoes as of today) will likely be left in the dust in favor of another Universal Pictures title “The Wild Robot,” Disney Pixar’s “Inside Out 2” the critically acclaimed Cannes title “Flow” from Janus Films and whatever else presents itself over the next couple of months as the fall film festivals and awards season kicks into high gear. It’s very possible Illumination does not care about the awards game, and the bigger award is the financial success their titles accumulate. If that’s true, it’s perfectly fine for them. Money is money at the end of the day. Still, those who see their films in mass and constantly wonder why they’re not receiving the same love from the Academy as other animated films can expect to see nothing change unless the studio changes.

Do you think Illumination will be nominated for Best Animated Feature again this year with “Despicable Me 4?” Do you think they need to change their approach to be embraced more by the Academy? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

You can follow Lisa and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars & Film on her portfolio here

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