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Courtesy of Illumination Entertainment

January 1, 2017

GOULDTHORPE | Here’s Who I Think is the Big Winner this Year in Animation — And It’s Not Disney

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Oh boy, did Disney clean up the field in 2016. The four top-grossing movies were all Disney properties. On November 1, they announced that they’d set a new company record for movie grosses, and that was before either Moana or Rogue One hit theaters! They now sit on six billion in global revenues and counting. With such strong financial success, plus warm praise from critics on virtually all fronts, Disney has done very well for itself!

So you may find it surprising when I argue they were not the biggest winners this year.

Oh, I certainly believed they put out the best movies. I don’t hide the fact that Zootopia was my personal favorite this year. Yet, Disney did nothing but confirm what we already knew: they make films that people want to see. They’ve merely grown more secure in their position as an industry leader. On the other hand, another animation studio has really grown this year and can demand more respect within the industry. I’m talking, of course, about Illumination Entertainment.

Chris Meledandri’s company made a splashing debut in 2010 with Despicable Me. The movie grossed nearly $550 million on a budget of less than $70 million. Despicable Me was also a hit with critics, and is certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with 81% favorable reviews from critics. As for the popular appeal… well, those little yellow minions are STILL everywhere! Over the next few years though, Illumination floundered a bit. 2011’s Hop only grossed $184 million and tanked with critics, while 2012’s The Lorax only performed slightly better with just under $350 million. The studio returned to their flagship franchise the next year with Despicable Me 2, and Minions two years later. Both brought in vastly superior returns. In fact, Minions grossed over a BILLION dollars, and is the second-highest grossing movie of all time behind Frozen. Those are great numbers, but also a cause for worry. Were they a one-trick pony? We all know what happens to companies that fail to innovate, that fail to diversify and move on. Illumination was in critical danger unless they could prove that they could make other successful properties. Luckily, they accomplished that this year.

Both The Secret Life of Pets and Sing opened to moderately favorable reviews from critics. More important to stockholders, though, is that they have both been successful at the box office. Secret Life brought in $875.5 million, more than Despicable Me did in its debut. In fact, it is the fifth highest grossing film globally of 2016 — in other words, the highest-grossing film that is not a Disney property. A sequel is already in the works, and all creative gripes about sequelization aside, it’s good to see that Illumination has a new franchise to build off of. As for Sing, the movie’s only been out for ten days domestically so it’s too early to gauge its success. That being said, as of the writing of this article it stood at $194 million globally and it hasn’t opened in all markets yet. I do hope it finds similar success. If you read my review (and if you haven’t, shameless self-reference here) you’ll know that I was more impressed with Sing than I was with Secret Life. Something about it simply charmed me, and I would love it if Illumination made more movies along that vein. Either way, it’s clear that both movies are turning out to be great successes for the studio. I feel far more confident about Illumination’s future now, and they really proved themselves in 2016.

To further highlight their accomplishment, I want to contrast them with another studio: Blue Sky Studios. They’ve been around a lot longer than Illumination has: originally a special effects house, they transitioned to feature film production in 2002 with the release of Ice Age, which carries a 77 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and grossed $383 million on a $59 million budget. The reason I’m using Blue Sky here is because they’ve suffered a similar problem. After Ice Age, Blue Sky had trouble diversifying for a few years. 2005’s Robots grossed only $260 million, while Ice Age: The Meltdown grossed $660 million a year later. (On a funny sidenote, these were all movies produced by Meledandri himself before he left to found Illumination in 2007.) Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!, Epic and even the critically acclaimed The Peanuts Movie all never broke even $300 million. The only other successful franchise they’ve had is Rio, which has only two movies, no others coming, and whose more successful entry (Rio 2) only made $500 million. The Ice Age franchise has been Blue Sky’s bread and butter… but in 2016, they got far less bread for their buck. The fourth Ice Age movie, 2012’s Ice Age: Continental Drift, grossed $877 million. That was a bit of a dip from the previous installment’s gross of $886 million. This year though, Blue Sky put out Ice Age: Collision Course. For those not keeping track, this is the fifth Ice Age movie, and it may just be the last. The film was critically panned, with only 13% positive reviews from critics. Financially, it only brought in $408 million. That is less than half what the previous movie grossed. Blue Sky’s flagship is failing, and they have nothing to hop onto.

This is where the two contrast so sharply. Blue Sky has built up no alternative to Ice Age, and their one successful property is not beginning to flounder, or even floundering — it is for all intents and purposes dead. They have a film scheduled for next December titled Ferdinand. They need to do well with this. They need it to be a success. Otherwise, they are doomed. Illumination, on the other hand, has found a new franchise that can make them money, maybe two of them, and they did it before Despicable Me began to tank. Over the course of 2016 they proved their vitality. They may not have brought in the incredible revenues that Disney managed, but they certainly grew the most, and that’s incredibly important.

David Gouldthorpe is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at djg284@cornell.edu. Animation Analysis will appear intermittently throughout winter break.