Illumination Entertainment Movies Ranked from Worst to Best

Something interesting happens when you sit down to watch all of Illumination Entertainment’s feature films; you start to notice peculiar trends appearing. Some of these trends are good, like the studio’s polished and consistent animation, the insane amounts of creativity on display, and the sense that these movies exist in modern version of a classic, slapstick cartoon world. However, some of the trends are not so great, like an over-reliance on gibberish and potty humor, the desire to force contemporary pop songs into the narrative, and a strange (and dark) violent streak that has one questioning just how kid-friendly some of these films really are.

Taking those trends into consideration, I’ve ranked the Illumination Entertainment films from Worst to Best. Your personal rankings and those of other fans and critics might not match up, and my list certainly won’t fall into step with the studio’s best box office performers, but at the very least I think there’s a clear line between their best work and their not-so-great efforts here. I found some surprises (and some disappointments) along the way, but perhaps least surprising (and most disappointing) of all is that Illumination Entertainment looks to be ditching any original ideas for a slate of sequels and adaptations from now until 2020 at the earliest. While this is surely a play for easy box office wins, it’s an unfortunate lean to one extreme since the studio’s best efforts began with rich, original ideas.

Image via Universal Pictures/Illumination Entertainment

Here’s a look at the upcoming calendar of Illumination Entertainment films as they currently exist:

Now, here’s how the studio’s current films stack up, from worst to first:

Hop

While Hop wasn’t Illumination Entertainment’s first film, they sure didn’t learn any early lessons from the success of Despicable Me. Rather than stick to 100% animation, Hop opted for a hybrid of live-action and animation, plunking poor James Marsden down opposite a computer-generated Easter bunny, as voiced by Russell Brand. This film, timed to an Easter release, hit theaters a few months earlier than Sony’s The Smurfs (which also opted for a hybrid approach), but took in only a fraction of the box office. It remains the studio’s lowest opening, domestic, and worldwide performer to date.

There’s good reason for that; the movie’s not very good in any category. The world is clunky to begin with since only Easter bunnies (a rare breed) and the chicks who work in their candy factory are animated; everything else is live-action, other animals included. The story is just as uneven: Brand’s E.B. is the heir apparent to becoming the Easter bunny, but all he wants to do is rock out as a musician, while Marsden (then 38) plays Fred, a live-at-home layabout forced to get a job. What follows is what could have been an interesting buddy comedy story if Fred had any ambition whatsoever and if E.B. hadn’t ultimately given up on his dream and followed in the family business anyway, after stopping an attempted coup d’etat by the factory chicks (through musical intervention, of course). Hop just isn’t very funny and has too little heart to make up for it.

Despicable Me 3

The latest effort from Illumination is also among its greatest disappointments. It becomes quite clear while watching Despicable Me 3 that only the lowest common denominators from the series have been culled and distilled into a rather pointless and mindless 90 minutes. I actually considered putting this film at the very bottom of the list, due mostly in part to a scene in which two of the film’s main characters end up 69ing for laughs/shock value (it’s a kids movie…), but there are some saving graces.

There are elements of a decent story here: Gru learns that he has a twin brother who he spends the bulk of the film getting to know, while also dealing with a half-baked uprising by the villainy-loving Minions. There’s more of a focus on Lucy (Kristen Wiig) growing into her role as a mother to Gru’s three girls than on Gru’s further development as a dad, even though both relationships are superficial. The villain of the piece–an 80s child star who has become a kitschy super-thief–and the incredibly inventive, imaginative, and super-fun gadgets on display throughout are the only truly enjoyable aspects of the movie, but they’re all too often experienced in isolation. While Despicable Me could have been a very clever, heart-warming, and action-packed super-spy franchise, it’s devolved further and further into fart jokes, increasingly unfunny Minion antics, and shallow, boring plots. And since it’ll likely make bank at the box office, there seems to be no end in sight.

Minions

Ah, Minions. There is no real reason for this movie to exist other than as a remarkably successful cash-in on the studio’s most successful original creation. There’s nothing wrong with that. Clearly, audiences were clamoring for more Minions since the introduction of the nigh-indestructible little yellow pill-shaped critters in Despicable Me. The 2015 feature holds the top spot in both the studio’s domestic opening and its worldwide box office, becoming its only billion-dollar-plus earner to date.

But Minions is devoid of any narrative purpose beyond giving audiences more antics from the Minionese-speaking entities and an unasked-for backstory that lays out the species history and evolutionary tree. Minions is also where the relatively recent mean streak of violence comes in: a T. rex is nudged to a fiery death in a volcano, a man is eaten by a bear, a time-traveling scientist is brutally bludgeoned to death which results in the extinguishing of all of his future selves, and multiple minions are subjected to various methods of torture, including a hanging scene. I’m all for cartoon violence when it’s anvils and dynamite and indestructible characters, but Minions was surprisingly dark for a kids movie. The solution: Just let Kevin, Stuart, and Bob say “banana” a few more times as a distraction.

The Secret Life of Pets

I had heard a lot of excitement over The Secret Life of Pets from friends, so imagine my disappointment when I discovered that it continued the mean streak kicked off by Minions. Clearly there is plenty of story material to mine when you have a cast of dozens of various animal pets coming from very different homes, upbringings, and backgrounds, but I was not expecting the plot to focus on a mad bunny’s plans for a pet rebellion that pivoted on the murder of their human owners. What?

The saving grace here is the Odd Couple tale of homebody Max (Louis C.K.) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet), who brings his checkered past into Max’s home. While these two pups don’t get along at first, they overcome their differences and end up saving each other at the end of the day. That’s a better lesson than anything the previous movies offered up, but it also comes within a movie featuring much scatological humor, surprising amounts of animal vs animal combat, and a meandering clump of side stories that were better off left in the litter box. However, I very much enjoyed the heartwarming reunion between the pets and their owners at the movie’s end, and who doesn’t love a Metal-obsessed, head-banging poodle?

Despicable Me 2

You have just crossed the divide between Illumination Entertainment’s lackluster productions and those with some heart, humor, and actual thought put into them. Despicable Me 2 may be a sequel to the studio’s flagship feature, but it works hard to further develop the once-villainous Gru (Steve Carell) as he struggles to raise his adopted daughters. Not only does Gru find himself reliving adolescent awkwardness when it comes to romance, his eldest daughter Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) becomes smitten as well, much to Gru’s displeasure.

Despicable Me 2 takes a fun turn by making Gru a consultant for the Anti-Villain League, giving him the opportunity to put his villainous ways behind him while also playing with super-spy gadgets and teaming up with Agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig). Their growing relationship acts as the emotional arc of this tale, even if the heart of the story is still the connection between Gru and his daughters. But the Minions continue to serve up the best laughs throughout the picture, at least until they’re turned into weird, purple, beasts bent on killing everything in their path. All’s well that ends well for this sequel that doesn’t outshine the original but finds ways to add new wrinkles to the story.

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax

Here’s one that surprised me! Back when I originally watched this film in 2012, I wasn’t all that impressed. I found the songs to be a jarring addition that clashed with typical Dr. Seuss style. But in comparison to the, at times, ham-fisted use of contemporary pop songs in Illumination’s other works, The Lorax was not nearly as obnoxious as I remembered. In fact, the use of songs to drive home the film’s pro-environment message might actually be more effective than not using them at all.

The Lorax certainly took liberties with Seuss’ original story, but there are elements of the children’s tale throughout the computer-generated telling. Ed Helms does a fine job as the Once-ler who spins his yarn about his myopic destruction of the land in the quest for greater profits in an unsustainable industry. Danny DeVito, for his part, delivers a gruff and grumpy Lorax who only shows up to speak for the trees before disappearing along with them once they’re all harvested. This tale is all wrapped up in a frame story that sees Zac Efron‘s 12-year-old Ted pining for Taylor Swift‘s highschooler Audrey and his hopes for winning her affection by gifting her an honest-to-goodness tree. That is something easier said than done in Thneedville, a town built on greed and corporate malfeasance where even the very air is sold in bottles. The message here is heavy-handed, but clearly it’s still not getting through to a sizable chunk of the population, so The Lorax remains as relevant today as ever.

Sing

Here’s another surprise! When I heard that Illumination Entertainment was going to be cramming some 85 songs into this musical comedy, I had pretty much written it off as another example of using contemporary pop music to push ticket sales and album purchases. And while that’s not exactly off the mark, Sing is the lone example of the studio’s penchant for pop music that actually works well within the structure of the movie’s narrative. A sequel is inevitable, sure, but like Despicable Me and the sequels/spinoffs it inspired, Sing is an original creation with a whole lot of heart and enough humor to service its story along the way.

Sing doesn’t focus on just one character but rather a half a dozen of them, all with their own hopes, dreams, and challenges to overcome. There’s Matthew McConaughey‘s Buster Moon, a struggling showbiz producer who has one last chance to save his family’s theater by taking a big risk on a musical talent competition. That Hail Mary for Buster is also a golden ticket for characters like overstressed mom Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), troubled family criminal Johnny (Taron Egerton), and the shy but super-talented Meena (Tori Kelly). What I liked best about Sing was that its resolution wasn’t the tired and unrealistic “everybody wins” fallacy, but something a little closer to real life: Things rarely work out the way you want or the way you planned, so you just have to make the best of what you’ve been given. So perhaps that lesson should be taken into consideration by the studio, who are moving forward with plans for a sequel…

Dr. Seuss' The Grinch

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Illumination Entertainment’s contemporary take on Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch is one of the best movies the studio has ever made. That’s a tall order, indeed, but some sort of cinematic alchemy behind the scenes has produced a new Christmas classic for a whole new generation of fans.

Originally appearing in the 1950s, the Christmas-hating Grinch has become a mainstay of the holiday season ever since. Dr. Seuss’ first iteration of the character was predictably simplistic for a kids’ tale: The Grinch hates Christmas simply because that’s the character trait that defines him. Christmas and everything associated with it irritates him, disturbs him, and ruins his otherwise content isolation … until it doesn’t, until the spirit of the season and the hopefulness of the Whos down in Whoville embiggen his heart and the Grinch realizes there’s more to Christmas than noise and light shows.

Image via Illumination Entertainment

In Illumination’s take, much as in the live-action version starring Jim Carrey, the story deepens the Grinch’s origin. It’s a tough task to take a picture book and a 26-minute, straightforward animated special and turn it into something three times as long that captures the spirit of the original and adds to it in a meaningful way. Co-directors Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier manage to do just that, thanks in a huge way to Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow‘s script. It’s the rare Illumination Entertainment tale that doesn’t rely on bathroom humor or goofy faces alone to elicit laughs from audiences of all ages, but The Grinch does just that. The Whos down in Whoville are earnest in their optimism and unbridled hope, and the earnest humor comes from The Grinch attempting to undermine that in some very silly ways. But rather than an outright and unexplained distaste for the Christmas season, audiences learn why The Grinch has such a bad reaction to Christmas carols, lights, and festivities. It’s more of a PTSD scenario than anything else, and viewers should have an easy time connecting with The Grinch and feeling bad for him, especially if they have anyone in their lives who experiences social anxiety or similar triggering events. It’s not exactly subtle in The Grinch, but it does help contemporary audiences connect with what was originally a very hateful character.

Beyond the central character and his crowd-pleasing puppy pal Max, the rest of the script is solid. There’s a parallel plot between The Grinch’s machinations to ruin Christmas and little Cindy Lou Who’s quest to capture Santa and personally deliver a special request. This is where the heart of the story really is, and when the conflict is finally revealed and families on both sides are healed, you can really feel the spirit of the holiday season at work. And Whoville is an absolutely gorgeous creation to behold, a gingerbread-styled village with so much going on in every scene that you’ll have to watch the movie again and again to catch everything; kudos to the animators for all the hard work that went into these heavily detailed and super-fun scenes. (There are also plenty of little quirks and mini-jokes that make repeat viewing a certainty with this one.)

The only thing keeping The Grinch out of the top spot is that it’s an adaptation of a holiday classic and not an original creation that launched a massively successful franchise. But it was very close, indeed.

Despicable Me

Sometimes your first effort is your best one. Illumination Entertainment took a strange-looking character–a villain, no less–and paired him with an army of weird little yellow dudes sporting overalls and goggles, and somehow, it all worked. Despicable Me feels like one of those rare successes borne out of pure creativity, the decision to allow imaginations to run wild, and a dash of sheer good luck. Though it’s not the studio’s highest-performing earner at the box office, it remains its best reviewed film to date, with good reason.

Despicable Me has the most solid storytelling of the bunch. Centering on the infamous villain Gru, this non-traditional approach focused the narrative on the bad guy, allowing audiences to watch as his nefarious plan to kidnap three girls in order to compete with a rival villain fell apart and ultimately led to the softening of his hardened heart. (To be fair to the Minions, who are hilarious introductions in this film, the little girls easily out-cute them. “It’s so fluffy!”) Gru’s gadgets and failed attempts to outdo the villain Vector (Jason Segal) are reminiscent of classic Spy vs Spy moments, but where the film really shines is in his increasingly emotional attachment to his adopted daughters, especially considering his own childhood was wrought with disappointment and detachment from his own mother. It’s the deepest of Illumination’s films and the current crowning achievement in their lineup from which most other good ideas (and merchandizing opportunities) flow. All hail Gru! Long may he reign!

Image via Illumination Entertainment

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