Christopher Meledandri, Chairman of the animation house Illumination Entertainment, one-time head of Fox Animation and the producer behind major animated hits like Ice Age and Horton Hears a Who, didn’t grow up with cartoons. In fact it wasn’t until his son was born that Meledandri really got the animation bug. 

After breaking away from Fox (after losing lots of money on the well-intentioned Titan AE and setting the studio up with a massive moneymaker franchise with the Ice Age movies), Meledandri started up Illumination, whose Santa Monica HQ I visited two weeks ago. Built on an open-space aesthetic – even Meledandri’s office has big glass walls looking out onto the bullpen – Illumination is finishing up their first film, Despicable Me, a movie about a supervillain who tries to steal the Moon but who gets his heart stolen by three orphan girls. The Illumination offices were abuzz not just with Despicable Me work but also artists working on an adaptation of Dr. Suess’ The Lorax; others had their hands full with the Ricky Gervais movie Flanimals

I (along with a handful of other journalists) was able to see about twenty minutes of Despicable Me, in various forms of completion. l dig checking out animation-in-progress because the storyboards and wireframes that are invariably part of the experience really illustrate the journey that an animated movie has to take from concept to completion. I saw the Spongebob Squarepants movie in a completely unfinished state that was intriguing, and CG movies are even more interesting since there are more stages – there are robotic-looking basic animations, unfinished textures, colors that are off. You really get to understand all of the work from all of the artists that goes into making just one scene of an animated film. In some sequences one character would be fully animated while others would just have rudimentary placeholder animations, and completed and gorgeous shots would be followed by static pencil sketches.

Gru is the lead character in Despicable Me; once a great supervillain (think in the James Bond mold), Gru is a touch behind the times. When an upstart villain steals the Great Pyramid of Giza, Gru decides that he needs to up the ante in a major way, securing himself a spot at the top of the villain heap forever. The plan: steal the Moon. But when three adorable moppets show up at his doorstep (I know, I know) and the upstart villain comes up with a way to top even that plan, things get serious.

The first scene we saw was the introduction of Gru and his world. A group of tourists hit the Pyramids, and amongst them are a trio of fat, stupid Ugly American types. Directors Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud and Sergio Pablos are obviously going for a very satirical Looney Tunes feel with this bit, where it’s revealed that Giza has been replaced by a giant inflatable fake. The film then cuts to Gru going about his daily business – popping children’s balloons, hitting everyone at the coffee shop with a freeze ray so he can get to the front of the line, threatening to kill his neighbor’s dog, driving around in a huge tank of an assault vehicle – before hatching his plan to steal the Moon. Gru heads down to his basement, which is filled with cuddly little Minions (sure to be the merchandising focus for Universal), who treat him like a rock star. And we also briefly meet the three little girls, who show up at Gru’s door trying to sell him some cookies.

Next up we saw a scene later in the film, where Gru takes the three girls to an amusement park. His plan is to leave them on the rollercoaster and make a quick exit, but when it turns out they can’t ride without him, he is stuck. What followed was a really beautifully animated bit of coaster action, followed by a slightly sick Gru. Then the girls decide they want to win a stuffed animal at a shooting booth, but the game is rigged. Being a supervillain, Gru does something a little… over the top to solve the scenario, vaporizing the booth and winning the toy.

Another sequence has Gru trying to sneak into the base of his nemesis, Vector. Vector’s a spoiled rich kid, and that means he has some of the most high tech gadgetry at his fingertips. As Gru attempts to bypass the systems, Vector keeps one-upping him until Gru is faced with a veritable bushel of missiles and laser guns. The resulting mushroom cloud is seen across the city.

Finally we saw a scene of Gru spending some quality time with the three orphans. Their beds are repurposed bomb shells, and as they get ready to sleep they demand a story. The youngest one gives Gru a book that requires him to stick three of his fingers through little holes and animate tiny bunny puppets; despite hating every minute of the story and its telling (“This is garbage!” he yells), the girls are enchanted by the hunchbacked villain. That is until he refuses to give them a good night kiss. This was my surprisingly my favorite sequence; the scene had real heart and small, sweet humor. 

Gru is voiced by Steve Carrell, and the rest of the voice cast is hipper than your average star-studded CGI toon. Jason Segel is Vector, while Russell Brand is a mad scientist who aids Gru. Jack McBreyer shows up as the carnie at the shooting gallery and folks like Danny McBride, Ken Jeong, Mindy Kaling and Will Arnett round out the rest of the voices.

Talking to Meledandri was interesting because he was so matter of fact and open about the realities of animation. He’s interested in bringing Illumination into non-family animation, but he’s also cognizant of the fact that that market doesn’t really exist in a major way right now. And when I brought up the fact that so many animated films rely on celebrity voice casts (although, again, this one leans less mainstream than the average Dreamworks film), he was very blunt about it. He knows that Pixar has a brand that attracts audiences, while Illumination needs an edge.

“We need the voice cast to help us promote the movie. That doesn’t mean they have to be big stars, but they have to be able to get the attention of the press. John Leguizamo wasn’t as big a star as Ray Romano when the first Ice Age came out, but the press liked him. He was a guy who made a lot of interesting choices and people liked interviewing him, so he became very important to us. It’s not that we need a superstar – and by the way, my own experience is that with adults does play a role, or can play a role in making the decision to see a movie, but I think the most important thing for us isn’t that the audience says ‘It’s X in the movie, I want to see the movie,’ it’s that we have an avenue to reach the audience by virtue of the press’ interest in that actor.”

That was incredibly refreshing, and it makes sense in light of the fact that Steve Carrell plays Gru with an accent that’s just this side of Peter Lorre, and not instantly recognizable as his own voice. It’s interesting that Illumination has chosen to go with these actors, who definitely are all favorites of the press, but who are also favorites of a certain segment of the press. The marketing for Despicable Me has been muted so far, mainly because they only had two sequences finished enough to use in trailers, so I’m going to be closely following how this movie gets sold. Could this be the first family market movie that realizes there are a lot of people aged 25 to 35 who are hip, media-aware and have kids who like to see cartoons? There will be some who argue that the casting of Jack Black in Kung Fu Panda hit this niche, but I’d argue that Black was already way too overexposed by the time that movie was released. If this same cast was in a live action movie we’d all be drooling over it, but will that carry over for an animated film? Only time will tell.