The (Complete Lack of) Story of Rosita and Norman or: The Reason Why I Don’t Care for Illumination Animated Films

I just wished they tried, that's all...

The (Complete Lack of) Story of Rosita and Norman or: The Reason Why I Don’t Care for Illumination Animated Films

If you are the parent of a child under the age of nine, chances are you went to see the movie “Sing” last Thanksgiving, and there may be a good chance that you even own it. It was an incredibly successful movie, grossing over $270 million in the United States and an additional $630 million+ internationally.

Since we’ve established that there’s a good chance you saw this movie, I want you to think about one of the characters in the film, Rosita. Do you remember which character she was?

No? I’ll give you a hint: She was the singing pig.

Ok, now there’s a pretty good chance that I didn’t even need to give you the hint for you to remember who Rosita was, but I’m pretty confident that at least one out of every four people couldn’t recall which character she was.

Now I want you to think about her character arc and what it all consists of. Chances are, if I had you write it down, you would have written “Rosita is a stay-at-home mother of several children who dreams of the spotlight, and her involvement in the singing competition gives her that chance.” That pretty much sums up what her character brings to the story. Yes, you could add in that she invents some machine that takes over her chores, her husband doesn’t help out that much with the kids, and there is some awkwardness with her singing power at first, but then they get over it. But really, her entire story arc is “mom who wants to sing gets the chance to sing and then she sings.”

All right, now tell me about the character Norman. What is his part in the movie?

Having trouble thinking about who Norman is? I’ll give you a hint: I just referenced him about 80 words ago.

If you had trouble remembering that Norman is Rosita’s husband, don’t worry, he’s treated like an afterthought in this film. But he does play a role in the life of one of the main characters in this story, so I’ll ask you one more question: What is the status of Rosita and Norman’s relationship?

Is their relationship on the rocks? Are they just going through the motions in life, slaves to the roles that they play in society? Does their marriage only exist as a mechanism to keep their overpopulated household running? Is their passion for one another being smothered by the excess of demands that a nuclear family produces?

See, with this question, I am quite certain that if I asked a group of ten people, I would get at a minimum of three different answers. And I wouldn’t fault anyone for the way that they answered the question, because the movie pretty much ignores what is really going on in their relationship, even though the finale of the film creates some sort of resolution for the problems they are both facing. Rosita sings her song at the concert, Norman sees the performance and is awed by her talent, he rushes onto the stage and passionately kisses her.

The end, I guess?

As an audience, we are to assume that there is a problem with their marriage or their relationship, but we’re never really told what is wrong. We are given enough to assume that domestic life with such a crazy household has Rosita feeling invisible, and Norman is constantly at his job and that by the time he gets home he’s too exhausted to invest anything into his home life. But what is the status of the relationship between Rosita and Norman?

That seems to be a pretty large part of these characters that is flat out missing from the film. We’re given enough to make vague assumptions on what’s going on, but there are many potentially interesting layers that are missing to both of these characters, and we’re given just the most simplistic outlines of who they are. We’re given a window dressing, but very little substance.

And that’s why Illumination Entertainment films disappoint me every time I watch them: They do just enough to be passable, but miss out on every opportunity to be great.

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Illumination Entertainment debuted their first film in 2010 with “Despicable Me”, in which a super villain adopts three girls and discovers that while his profession may be that of a bad guy, deep down he’s got a good heart. This was hardly an original concept, but it struck a chord with audiences and became a huge success. Since then Illumination Entertainment has made seven other films: Two “Despicable Me” sequels, a spin-off film based on the Minions characters, two films based off of Dr. Suess books (“The Lorax” and “Horton Hears a Who”), an Easter movie (“Hop”), and the aforementioned “Sing”. Every film that they have made has been profitable for the studio, and the Minion characters have become cultural icons. Chances are, if you check your Facebook news feed, there is probably a picture of a meme standing next to an inspirational quote.

While Illumination Entertainment has been successful as a business, I would argue that they have been successful as filmmakers, especially in making films that will stand the test of time.

I have seen nearly all of the Illumination Entertainment films, whether it was because I was curious on how they would interpret some of my favorite Dr. Suess stories or if my children wished to see them. And after viewing each of their films, I know that I left the theater content with what I had just seen, but not satisfied (except for “Minions”, which was just a miserable mess of a film). None of the films were ever bad or offensive, but I can’t say I would classify any of them as good, either. There isn’t a single Illumination Entertainment film that I was ever excited about the opportunity to see again. And that’s a real shame, because it has become apparent that Illumination Entertainment films have taken the safest route possible in making films that would spark enough interest for people to want to see them, but take the least amount of chance to make their films actually memorable.

From a business perspective, it makes sense on why they would play it safe. If you have a formula that is proven to get a response from your consumer base and you can do so at the exact price point (doing enough so it doesn’t look cheap, but not a penny more than is necessary to be passible) and playing it safe enough so that it won’t ruffle any feathers, why not do it? It’s show BUSINESS after all, and studios need to make money!

And if all that Illumination Entertainment wants to do is make the film equivalent of regular flavor chewing gum (something that can be chewed up and spat out, but not necessarily remembered), that’s fine. But what if they took the chances to make a story that would resonate with an audience and make them CARE about what’s happening in the film? What if the story INSPIRED the audience to dive deeper into the story? What if they allowed the audience to INVEST into what the characters were going through? Think of how incredible that could be!

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As you will probably learn if you read more than one of my pieces on animated films, you will find out that I am a Disney fanboy. I’m not to the point that I think that everything that they touch is pure gold (they were responsible for “Home on the Range”, a film that too this day flabbergasts me that anyone signed off on it and thought it would be any good), but for nearly 100 years they have been a studio that has created a lineup of films that have stood the test of time. They have also done it by adapting stories that were decades or centuries old, and yet were able to add their special flare to every project to make it their own unique and satisfying experience.

The heart of the reason why they have been successful for so long is that with every film, the goal isn’t just to produce something that will be satisfactory, but it is the goal to make it memorable. They produce films with the hopes that they will become a part of your childhood (or adulthood) experience, and the audience is allowed to connect with characters beyond a surface level. They want to make sure that the audience not just sees the characters, but actually cares about them.

This commitment to ensuring an investment is made to their characters has also proven to be quite financially successful for Disney, and the main difference between Disney and Illumination is that while the latter has audience members are satisfied with what they just saw but barely connect with their other films that they just saw not even a decade ago, Disney has an audience that spans generations that have favorite characters from films that were produced even before there were fifty stars on the American flag! And with Disney staying committed to this mentality, the films that are being produced currently are just beginning to blossom and grow in popularity. Meanwhile, Illumination does just enough to be good at the moment, but there is little to no chance that they will make a lasting impact. The Minion pictures on your Facebook news feed that I mentioned before? They are just as disposable as a napkin in the bag of fast food. It served its purpose, but now it’s time to move on.

But it doesn’t have to be this way for Illumination Entertainment. Sure, you can make the argument that it’s not necessary to concentrate on the story structure of animated films. After all, they’re for kids, right? And kids are content with pretty colors and a fart joke now and then. That can be successful, but only in the short term. Taking the time (and risk) to make something amazing will give the audience more than a snack that they’ll forget as soon as they are done with it and instead give them a feast that will make them remember it for years to come.

Let me show you how this could be done by using Rosita and Norman from “Sing” as an example: The film already established that (1) They are married, (2) they have a family, (3) it is a lively household, and (4) the stress of life drains them so that by the end of the day they are both exhausted. Let’s take one scene where all of these elements take place. In the scene, Rosita had received the flyer about the singing competition earlier in the day, and while she is scrambling to get the children ready for bed, Norman walks through the door, deflated and exhausted from a grueling day at work, and only has the energy to grab some pie from the fridge, pay Rosita a quick compliment about how amazing her cooking is, and sit down in the recliner. By the time Norman reaches the recliner, he passes out from exhaustion, too tired to eat what he knows is excellent food, and Rosita is denied the opportunity to share her desire to be a part of the competition.

Now, I’m not asking that there needs to be an epic altercation between Rosita and Norman and for epic monologues to take place about the status of their marriage, but there are opportunities to strip away layers about what the status of their relationship. What was life like for Rosita and Norman before they had children and consumed all of Rosita’s time? What is it about Norman’s job that zaps the life out of him? Was there a time that the weight of the world wasn’t crushing them, and how has the change from that time to the present affected the way that they live together? Does Rosita feel unappreciated? If Rosita were to say that to Norman, would he feel equally as unappreciated?

That may seem like I’m asking too much from a film that is pretty much the first episode of any season of “American Idol”, except with animals, but let me give you an example of a Disney film with a similar situation but goes the extra distance and attacks the extra layers. At the beginning of the 2016 film “Zootopia”, a young Judy Hopps, the main protagonist of the film (who is also a rabbit who will later become a cop), tells her parents that she one day wants to become a cop. Quite concerned, her parents tell her not to dream so big, because there is much to the world that is dangerous and it is better to play it safe. Judy’s parents use themselves as an example, and they talk about how they gave up their dreams and stuck to being carrot farmers like so many past generations before them.

There is even more shown in the short span of this scene, in fact, many of the issues that face Rosita and Norman also face Judy Hopps’s parents (a plethora of children, the wear and tear of daily life). But in “Zootopia”, the extra effort is put in on WHY Judy’s parents have chosen this life and their concerns of going outside of the role they feel they have to be in society. Because of making that extra effort, the impact that is made on the audience is so much stronger, and with this investment the journey that the characters go on throughout the film stay with the audience long after the film is over.

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Illumination Entertainment has every right to continue to make passable films. It is making them money, and it’s understandable to not want to try to fix something that, from a financial standpoint, isn’t broken. But it is very short-term thinking, and the money that they are leaving on the table by going the extra mile is substantial. I also think that, at some point, audiences will grow tired of the play-it-safe formula that they have created. By the time they feel forced to take risks and put forth a stronger product, audiences may have moved on. They have proven that they can make passible work. Here’s hoping they do a little more and start making something great.

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Originally Published on July 14, 2017