With ‘Migration,’ Illumination’s Chris Meledandri Emphasizes Auteurism

With “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” riding high to the tune of $1.3 billion in global receipts, and as Pharrell Williams lay in the wings to offer the producer a lifetime achievement award, Illumination CEO Chris Meledandri made sure to direct the lion’s share of attention to “Migration” director Benjamin Renner as the pair sat before a packed auditorium at the Annecy Animation Festival on Wednesday.

Taking the stage after premiering 25 minutes of “Migration” footage, Meledandri stepped (quite adeptly) into the role of interviewer, putting Renner in the spotlight and peppering the French filmmaker with questions about inspiration and artistry. If the interest was genuine, it was also no doubt strategic, as Meledandri inferred to Variety in an interview following the presentation.

“I would love for people to hear [directly] from Benjamin about his process and his intention,” said Meledandri. “That’s a very old fashioned idea — to get the filmmaker out there. But that wasn’t necessarily a key part [of our last few releases.] The filmmaker attention came after ‘Mario,’ as opposed to before.”

Of course, “Migration” is a markedly different beast. Based on a script from Mike White, the airborne vacation comedy is the studio’s first original title since 2016, and a film whose immediate pitch is less obvious from the title than, say, “The Secret Life of Pets” (or, for that matter, the near transparent simplicity of “Sing”).

But Renner is also a known-commodity — an Oscar nominee for 2012’s “Ernest and Celestine” and an acclaimed graphic novelist whose reputation spurred buzz at Illumination well before the project was announced.

“Our whole studio in Paris were big fans of Benjamin’s before I was even aware of him,” says Meledandri. “And in my team, I think it was maybe even [executive producer] Brett Hoffman who initially said, you’ve got to see Benjamin’s film. So we have a collective sensibility.”

On-stage at the Annecy presentation, Meledandri touted his studio’s track record incorporating talent from outside the CG fold, calling the practice “culture defining” and boasting that more than 40 Illumination directors and co-directors have fit that bill. But none, at least since “Sing” director Garth Jennings in 2016, have brought the same name recognition – and for Jennings, that renown was born from live-action and music video work.

Which is why a slide comparing the character design of “Migration” hero Mack to Illumination stalwart Gru played on two levels. If ostensibly meant to highlight this latest project’s new creative challenges – with the Mallard’s 1049 points of manipulation besting poor Gru’s paltry 413 – it also underscored the presentation’s larger subtext, and perhaps a theme the studio will hit until the film’s December release: That “Migration” promises a rather different and more auteurist Illumination offering.

“Now, I look at every film now as an individual challenge from a standpoint of audience engagement,” said Meledandri. “The idea that there’s a template is archaic, which means that on each film, we’re going to discover a process.”

“In this case, there was a lot more interest in our filmmaker, so I’d love for us to resort to a very tried and true methodology,” he adds. “That’s one approach we haven’t done on the last few films that I think would be particularly compelling for this one — especially in Europe.”

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