How To Build A Better Animated Family Movie – A Case Study of DESPICABLE ME

Despicable Me - Gru, Girls and Minions

(c) Universal Studios

I cannot escape the animated family movie.

I’m a parent of two elementary school-age kids, boy/girl twins who live in media-opolis Los Angeles. Movie-goers since age four, my kids are savvy consumers of the genre, aware of every movie aimed at them that’s advertised on a billboard, previewed in a theater, or has a trailer accessible on YouTube. If they see something that hooks them, they clamor for it. If there’s nothing compelling at the movies on a given weekend, they’ll pop in an animated DVD or ask for one on Netflix.

Some weekends, that means there are 90+ minutes of my life I’m never getting back … and neither are my kids. But other weekends, a good time is had by all. The investment of time is worth our entire family’s while. Kids and adults enjoy a good, and maybe even wonderful, piece of family entertainment.

As a parent who’s had to sit through the good, the bad, and the God-awful of the genre, I got to wondering, what makes for a truly terrific animated family movie?  And as a movie industry story analyst (that’s how I make my living), I got to thinking, is there anything those who make them can learn from one of the best?

To find the answers, I picked the most-often-requested, most-frequently-watched movie in our house, and analyzed it. The result turns out to be what I hope is a useful case study in what makes a best-in-class animated family movie.

HOW DESPICABLE ME GETS IT RIGHT

DESPICABLE ME (directed by Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud, story by Sergio Pablos, screenplay by Ken Daurio & Cinco Paul) seemingly came out of nowhere in 2010. Its screenplay was original, not based on a well-known book series or other known quantity, and the trailer was intriguing but puzzling, so we didn’t really know what to make of it in advance.

But it proved a roaring success, and not just with my kids: according to the Los Angeles Times, the $69-million-dollar film grossed a staggering $544 million worldwide, and has gone on to make $230 million more in home entertainment sales.  The $76-million dollar sequel, DESPICABLE ME 2, debuted July 3, 2013, and by mid-August had already racked up $338 million domestic and $407 million in foreign box office.  NBC Universal chief Steve Burke has been quoted as saying it’s on track to become “the single most profitable film in the 100 year history of Universal Studios.”   (For analysis of how the sequel employs many of the same successful story elements as the original film, see the conclusion of this piece.)   There’s already a planned additional film, a spin-off which will star its supporting characters, the irresistibly cute, mischievous, and just barely articulate creatures called Minions. A couple of those Minions can be found, in stuffed form, on my kids’ beds every night.

Despicable Me - Minions

(c) Universal Studios

More than two years after my kids saw it in the theater the first time, DESPICABLE ME keeps making the cut at our house for a lot of good reasons – and they have nothing to do with 3D or visual spectacle. The reasons it works – for kids AND adults – are found in the script. Let’s run ‘em down:

  1. The concept is clear to kids, and so’s the story.
  2. The premise appeals to both kids and adults.
  3. The protagonist is genuinely likable.
  4. The protagonist has a satisfying arc, changing for the better.
  5. Characters and situations are relatable to the family audience.
  6. There is consistent & effective comedy for kids and adults.
  7. It’s never TOO scary.
  8. It has genuine heart that’s not overly earnest.

Keep reading for the story in capsule, and the first element that helps DESPICABLE ME win over its intended audience: 1. THE CONCEPT IS CLEAR TO KIDS, AND SO’S THE STORY

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