Even as Chris Meledandri prepares to launch Mario onto movie screens, the Illumination founder and CEO is simultaneously juggling several new movies and sequels in his ever-expanding animation empire. These range from follow-ups to his “Sing,” “Despicable Me” and “Secret Life of Pets” franchises, as well as original movies like this fall’s “Migration,” the story of a family of ducks who live in a pond in New England and no longer have to migrate because the winters are milder. But before all that, there’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” which is expected to achieve box office domination when it opens on April 5.
Beyond running Illumination, Meledandri, who sat down with Variety with Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto for this week’s cover story on the making of “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” also serves as a creative partner to DreamWorks Animation as it looks to reboot the “Shrek” franchise. In that capacity, he’s pushed to bring back the film’s original voice cast which includes Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy for “Shrek 5.”
“It’s not that dissimilar to the process that we went through with ‘Mario,’ where you look at what the core elements are that audiences have loved, and you do your very best to honor those core elements,” Meledandri said. “And then you’re hard at work to build story elements and new characters that take you to brand new places. The original cast is a huge part of that.”
Though no deals are in place, he said negotiations with the actors are going well. “We anticipate the cast coming back. Talks are starting now, and every indication that we’ve gotten is there’s tremendous enthusiasm on behalf of the actors to return,” he said.
And Meledandri has good reason to be optimistic. Following the success of the 2022 “Shrek” spinoff sequel “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” Murphy said in January, “If [DreamWorks] ever came with another ‘Shrek,’ I’d do it in two seconds. I love Donkey. They did ‘Puss in Boots’ movies. I was like, ‘They should have done a Donkey movie.’ Donkey is funnier than Puss in Boots. I mean, I love Puss in Boots, but he ain’t funny as the Donkey.”
Meledandri said he was “thrilled” when he read Murphy’s comments, adding, “It’s evidence of his strong enthusiasm for a role that he so brilliantly inhabited and really created alongside the artists at DreamWorks. I found that comment to be very exciting.”
When asked if he thought Donkey was a character that could support its own film, similar to the fighting feline spinoffs starring Antonio Banderas, Meledandri answered, “Without question.”
Throughout his in-depth Variety interview, Meledandri also teased the other animated projects Illumination is cooking up. He’s looking for a fresh way to return to the world of dogs, cats, goldfish and all other forms of domesticated animals.
“We’re developing a couple of scripts in ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ world,” he said. “While we’re not ready yet to start a film, we’re absolutely continuing to develop in that franchise.”
So what would a possible “Secret Life of Pets 3” look like?
“One of the stories that we’re developing involves one primary character from the first two films, but introduces a new set of characters,” Meledandri added. “And then another story that we’re developing is the ensemble. So we’re looking at it from different angles.”
And Meledandri is also “deep into development” on “Sing 3,” a new installment of his hit series about a group of animals competing in a talent competition. “It will involve characters from the original cast, but it will take us into a new world,” he said.
“Sing 2” generated more than $400 million at the box office, but it had the misfortune to debut as the omicron COVID variant was spreading wildly, which depressed ticket sales. However, Meledandri says the film was a streaming smash. The sequel was the third highest-streamed movie overall in the U.S. in 2022 and was streamed over 80 million times on Netflix.
“We don’t just look at box office,” Meledandri says of the decision to make more “Sing” films. “We gauge the audience response in different ways. The streaming success of ‘Sing 2’ signals that fans want to stay in this world with these characters.”
And while little is known about “Migration,” other than it’s written by “The White Lotus” creator Mike White and directed by “Ernest and Celestine’s” Benjamin Renner, audiences at “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” will be among the first to get a look at what Illumination has in store. A trailer for the film will be released alongside the studio’s Nintendo adventure.
“It represents Illumination’s ongoing commitment to telling original stories, which I think is absolutely essential to culture,” Meledandri said.
In “Migration,” the family of ducks finds themselves at odds. With the weather warming, the father in the family wants to remain safe and comfortable in their pond in New England, while the wife wants them to explore the wider wold.
“The film is very beautiful and has a painterly quality that is quite different from anything we’ve done at Illumination,” Meledandri said. “The story is told with humor and heart. It’s a remarkably human story with characters who are very relatable and end up wrestling with issues that we all understand, even though they are ducks. And their qualities as ducks are incredibly well executed, from the smallest detail on a feather to their movements and their flight. So it’s a movie that transports you into this world up in the sky, but at the same time it’s very true to who we are.”
And Meledandri isn’t just sticking to movies. Illumination has teamed with Pierre Coffin, the writer and director of the “Despicable Me” films, on two short series that will premiere on TikTok in May before going to YouTube. One, “Who’s Who,” is set in the world of Minions, while the other, “Bones Story,” tells a wholly original tale.
“We like to follow the creativity of our team,” Meledandri said. “This is something Pierre wants to do and it’s exciting to experiment in serialized storytelling.”