How To Build A Better Animated Family Movie – Checklist and Conclusion: Do Other Successful Animated Family Comedies Use These Elements?

The Incredibles

(c) Disney/Pixar


DESPICABLE ME delivers satisfying family entertainment because so many of its script’s elements work so well. Do at least some of these same elements show up in the better animated family comedies?

I analyzed three big animated successes of recent years and found out they do. Here’s a rundown:


CLEAR-TO-KIDS CONCEPT & STORY Boy tames/learns to fly dragon.  Boy must save village from dragon attacks & win dad’s respect.
LIKABLE PROTAGONST(S) The boy, Hiccup, is well-motivated, sympathetic (too small to be dragon slayer) & smart (invents his way out of problems).
SATISFYING ARC Boy saves village & wins dad’s respect.
RELATABLE CHARACTERS & SITUATIONS Boy tries to prove himself to dad; boy gets to know/bonds with animal (the dragon is a stand-in for our own family pets).
EFFECTIVE COMEDY FOR KIDS AND ADULTS Fellow dragon trainees act like typical teens.
NOT TOO SCARY Though features a somewhat scary creature in climax, emphasizes action & spectacle over frights.
GENUINE HEART/NOT TOO EARNEST Boy bonds with animal; boy heals relationship with dad.


CLEAR-TO-KIDS CONCEPT & STORY Superhero bored by retirement; once back in action, must be saved by family.
PREMISE APPEALS TO KIDS AND ADULTS Family members are all superheroes, even kids (wish-fulfilling for real kids).
LIKABLE PROTAGONST(S) Dad Mr. Incredible saves people even though he’s retired.
SATISFYING ARC Dad starts out keeping secrets from family; learns to trust & rely on them.
RELATABLE CHARACTERS & SITUATIONS Mom, dad, and siblings squabble just like us.
EFFECTIVE COMEDY FOR KIDS AND ADULTS Parents laugh at superhero movie/James Bond movie references; kids laugh at sibling rivalry, school social dilemmas, etc.
NOT TOO SCARY Family triumphs over jeopardy in visually cool ways:  e.g., Mom (Elastagirl) becomes a parachute, rescuing kids from falling plane).
GENUINE HEART/NOT TOO EARNEST Squabbles set aside as family learns to work as a team, trust each other.


CLEAR-TO-KIDS CONCEPT & STORY Zoo animals break out to experience freedom, have to fend for themselves in nature.   Must rely on each other to survive.
PREMISE APPEALS TO KIDS AND ADULTS The pampered must fend for themselves in a new environment.
LIKABLE PROTAGONST(S) Zebra Marty seeks a taste of freedom; true friend Alex the lion leads Marty’s rescue.
SATISFYING ARC Egotistical Alex & freedom-seeking Marty learn to put friends first (starving Alex won’t eat Marty; Marty seeks to get Alex home).
RELATABLE CHARACTERS & SITUATIONS Characters are lost and miss home.
EFFECTIVE COMEDY FOR KIDS AND ADULTS Examples:  Marty doing a SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER” walk — humor adults get – coupled with plenty of physical comedy for kids (e.g., Alex bites Marty’s butt).  Mock-military Penguins provide lots of comic relief.
NOT TOO SCARY Jeopardy is tempered with humor (villain KING JULIAN is ridiculous).
GENUINE HEART/NOT TOO EARNEST Animals have camaraderie (they throw Marty a birthday party) & stick together (to save Marty) but their bonding is never corny.


In a highly competitive animated family movie marketplace, the best-in-class employ the same key elements found in DESPICABLE ME.

To the filmmakers & the studios behind animated family comedies, here’s a checklist to see if your projects measure up:

  1. Do you have a concept and story that are both clear to kids?
  2. Is the premise one that appeals to both kids and adults?
  3. Is the protagonist truly likable?
  4. Does the protagonist have a satisfying arc, changing for the better?
  5. Are characters and situations relatable to the family audience?
  6. Is there consistent & effective comedy for kids and adults?
  7. Is it ever TOO scary?
  8. Does it have genuine heart that’s not overly earnest?


DESPICABLE ME 2 makes ample use of all of the above elements, with special emphasis on characters and situations familiar and relatable to the family audience.  Here’s the set-up:  now that Gru’s a father, he’s given up villainy for jam-making (though the jam tastes terrible).  But because he knows how a villain thinks, he’s recruited by the Anti-Villain League to help capture a new villain on the scene, the comically exaggerated El Macho (Benjamin Bratt).  The concept and story are clear and the premise is appealing – Gru is firmly back in secret agent territory, but now he’s a good guy.  The amusing sequence establishing the premise, in which Gru is abducted by Anti-Villain League agent/new foil/romantic interest Lucy Wilde (Kristin Wiig), is used in the movie’s delightful trailer, which communicates the sequel’s concept clearly, efficiently, and in entertaining  fashion.

Despicable Me 2

(c) Universal Pictures

The film cleverly solves the sequel’s dilemma of turning a villain into acceptable dad material by having Gru go to work for the good guys (ensuring the protagonist stays likable), yet keeps him cool (with secret-agent/villain gadgets and gizmos).  As before, Gru has to deal with the relatable challenges of parenting three girls: e.g., when the rent-a-fairy entertainer he’s hired to appear at little Agnes’ birthday party doesn’t show, he’s forced to don fairy attire himself.

Daddy Gru is faced with navigating the treacherous terrain of Margo’s first boy problem, the cool, handsome but fickle bad boy Antonio (Moises Arias).  Gru channels every girl’s father in his attempts to protect daughter Margo from inevitable heartbreak, in the movie’s most relatable element.  Agnes longs for a mom, imbuing the movie with genuine heart.   The girls amusingly try to set up single dad Gru with an on-line dating site.  But Gru, whose different look, accent and interests caused girls to reject him growing up (a school-yard flashback shows girls fleeing him for fear of “Gru-ties,” a play on cooties), is afraid to put himself out there.  This element provides heart too, and keeps Gru sympathetic.  Fortunately, Gru gets his own romance with his perfect match, Lucy, who gets him to open up to love.  The romance gives Gru a satisfying, well-executed character arc.

Minions are on screen considerably more than in the first movie, and remain very funny and kid-like as Gru’s go-to babysitters, providing plenty of physical and some aural/verbal comedy that pleases all ages.   (As an added benefit, the Minions’ slapstick is easy for international audiences to understand).   And despite some mild jeopardy, as well as some crazed “evil” minions, no nightmares will ensue.  Even the evil minions get turned back into good ones.  The movie never crosses into too-scary territory.  So once again, the filmmakers have utilized and executed well all the key elements that make for successful animated family movies.  Here’s the trailer.

My kids are in third grade, and that means a lot more animated family comedies are in my future.  Since I can’t escape them – and sometimes I’m even happy not to – here’s hoping there are more like DESPICABLE ME 1 (and DESPICABLE ME 2) coming soon to a theater near us.

DESPICABLE ME (2010)  Directed by Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud.  Screenplay by Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio, story by Sergio Pablos.  With Steven Carell, Russell Brand, Jason Segel, Julie Andrews, Will Arnett, Kristin Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove.

DESPICABLE ME 2 (2013) Directed by Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud.  Screenplay by Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio.  With Steve Carell, Benjamin Bratt, Russell Brand, Kristin Wiig.


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