Universal is already off to a hot start this year with three #1 movies between M. Night Shyamalan‘s Glass, Jordan Peele‘s Us, and DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, as well as a Best Picture win for Green Book, which just crossed the $300 million mark worldwide. Universal has been remarkably consistent over the years and 2019 looks no different, as the studio is back in business with Blumhouse (Ma and The Hunt), Illumination (The Secret Life of Pets 2), Working Title (Cats and Yesterday) and producer Will Packer (Little).
Universal book-ended its CinemaCon presentation with its two most reliable performers — the Fast & Furious franchise and the latest animated feature from Illumination, whose shot caller Chris Meledandri wasted no time in bringing Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish on stage to promote The Secret Life of Pets 2. This time around, Patton Oswalt replaces Louis CK as the voice of lovable canine Max. I loved the premise of the first film, but I found its execution to be lacking. So I’m relieved to report that the sequel looks better than the film film, and I think it will benefit from new cast additions like Haddish and Harrison Ford. Illumination typically delivers very cute and clever animated films, so I’m down to give this franchise another shot despite feeling burned by the original.
And hey, speaking of pets, Dennis Quaid came out next to stump for A Dog’s Journey, the sequel to 2017’s sleeper hit A Dog’s Purpose, which grossed over $200 million worldwide on a $22 million budget. I’m a dog lover, but these films aren’t for me. Maybe I’ll watch it on a plane one day.
Next up was Blumhouse principal Jason Blum, who promised we’d see him dressed as a ghoul next year rather than in a suit. He did a brief tease for The Hunt, which is slated to star Betty Gilpin, Ike Barinholtz, Emma Roberts, Justin Hartley and Glenn Howerton. The logline has been kept under wraps, but Collider has learned that the film follows a group of ‘rednecks’ who are captured and hunted for sport by rich, liberal elites. The premise reminds me of the 1994 action movie Surviving the Game starring Ice-T. But again, we didn’t see any footage from that film. Instead, Blum was focused on hyping Ma, so he brought out that film’s director and star, Tate Taylor and Octavia Spencer. We saw a new trailer that was largely the same as the first one, but with a bit more blood and gore. It was also far less subtle about Ma’s intentions and motivations. The filmmakers explained that Ma is really about the effects of childhood bullying, and how long some people are willing to wait for revenge. If you haven’t pieced it together by now, Ma was bullied back when she was in high school, and while everyone else grows up and moves on, she hasn’t forgotten how she suffered as a teenager, so when she befriends the children of her former bullies, she sees an opportunity to finally get the revenge she has yearned for all these years. Ma is one of my most anticipated genre films of the year, and I’ll take this over a movie set in the dreaded and dreadful Conjuring universe any day. Ma opens in the heart of summer movie season on May 31, while The Hunt commences on Oct. 18.
Universal pivoted to lighter fare following the Blumhouse presentation, welcoming Little producer Will Packer to the stage. He promptly introduced stars Regina Hall, Issa Rae and Marsai Martin, who at 14 years old, is considered the youngest executive producer in Hollywood history. As you’ve seen in the trailer, Little is a reverse take on Big, in which a spoiled adult is cut down to size and forced to live as a pint-sized teenager. The film looks positively delightful, and Martin is destined to be a star. I think this one is going to surprise a lot of people when it hits theaters in just a couple weeks.
The Little team was a hard act to follow, but Danny Boyle gave it his all while introducing a slightly-tweaked new trailer (I think) for Yesterday, which stars newcomer Himesh Patel. He plays a singer who suffers an accident in the middle of a worldwide power outage, and awakes to find that he’s the only person on the planet who remembers the music of The Beatles. Now, I’ve been doing this job long enough to know that you have to give a movie its premise, but even with Boyle at the helm, I just can’t get onboard with this one. Patel took the stage and sang “Yesterday” in front of the crowd, and while he does have a very good voice, I just can’t wrap my head around the premise of this film. Keep in mind that over the past two days, I’ve seen two excellent music-driven films about a singer and a songwriter, so if Yesterday is even half as good as Wild Rose or Blinded by the Light then I’ll be surprised and impressed.
Following Patel’s performance, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg came out to introduce a new trailer for Good Boys, which looks absolutely hilarious. It’s not a prequel to Superbad, but it sure feels like one as Jacob Tremblay leads a trio of pre-teens as they discover sex stuff like anal beads and, naturally, internet porn. The kids seem to have a great rapport together, both onscreen and off, and alongside Booksmart, this is my most anticipated studio comedy of the year.
With the raunch out of the way, Universal returned to the world of animation with Abominable, which hails from DreamWorks Animation and China’s Pearl Studio. It’s about a Yeti who wants to return to his home on Mount Everest. The trailer is set to Fleetwood Mac’s “You Can Go Your Own Way,” and again, this looks very cute, albeit very much for kids. Given the film’s China storyline, I could see this performing particularly well overseas.
Focus took its turn at the podium next, debuting the first trailer for the Downton Abbey movie, which, clearly, is strictly for fans of the show. I have zero interest in seeing this film, but apparently the plot finds the King and Queen visiting Downton, there’s a gay kiss, and Mr. Carson returns. I’m not a fan of the show, so this one isn’t for me.
Paul Feig came out next to introduce his Last Christmas stars Emma Thompson and Henry Golding. To be honest, this was the lowlight of Universal’s presentation as Last Christmas looks like a fairly generic holiday romance movie, albeit one with a very charming male lead in Golding. As a huge Feig fan (seriously, I’ve even read his books!), I’d love to see him get back to being funny, because this workmanlike effort feels very anonymous to me. But perhaps I’m being too harsh. Again, it’s only a trailer, it just felt like a Netflix movie to me, all due respect to Universal’s streaming competitor.