It’s been 16 years since producer Chris Meledandri left 20th Century Animation to found Illumination. Moreover, it’s been a little over a decade since Illumination released its first film, Despicable Me, onto an unsuspecting public. Co-owned by its main distributor Universal Pictures, the studio and their yellow bite-sized boomer meme mascots have rapidly become juggernauts of the animation industry ever since, devouring the competition (like Pixar and DreamWorks, which is also Universal-owned), infecting pop culture, and even beating Disney at their own box office game. As such, we’re now here to decide which of these Illumination titles stand as the very best in a full ranked list from worst to best.
Needless to say, lucrative financial success isn’t always an indicator of quality. For all of its mega popularity amongst children, Facebook aunts, and Comcast shareholders, Illumination has also earned itself somewhat of a bad rap when it comes to whether or not their movies are actually good.
The studio’s bright and sickeningly sweet colors, celebrity voice casting, and endless barrage of pop songs can be surface-level fun but don’t usually offer much actual substance. The emotions that do exist in their projects often feel shallow if not outright hollow, or worse, lazily manipulative. On that note, Lazy is usually the word that gets tossed around when it comes to Illumination, with much of the criticism being aimed at the movies’ thin plots and middle-of-the-road entertainment value.
Of course, these complaints haven’t exactly slowed the studio down in any way. Their latest, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, is yet another billion-dollar smash hit, quickly skyrocketing to becoming the highest-grossing video game movie of all time and one of the biggest animated features ever as well. We’ll likely be seeing more Illumination for many years to come – more Minions, more Gru, more Secret Lives of Pets, more singing animals, and more Nintendo video game adaptations. As it stands, the studio is planning to release its next original story Migration later this holiday season and Despicable Me 4 next year. The jury is out on whether any of this is a really good thing or not.
We ranked all 13 Illumination movies so far to decide on a definitive list, going from the very worst to the absolute best. Is the studio deserving of all the condemnation, or is there actually more depth within these hours of animated mayhem than it may appear? Does it matter? From the first Despicable Me to The Super Mario Bros. Movie, here are our thoughts on the works of one of the most unstoppable animation studios in film history.
Every Illumination Film Ranked Worst to Best
Director: Tim Hill
Released: April 1, 2011
Led by Alvin and the Chipmunks director Tim Hill, 2011’s Hop is the one true outlier of the Illumination resume, being the only project of theirs that combines CG animation with live-action. Despite turning a profit, it’s also the lowest-grossing film to come from the studio, and for good reason – Hop is honestly more despicable than anything Gru and company could ever accomplish.
The plot focuses on E.B. (voiced by Russell Brand), the son of the Easter Bunny himself who wants to march to his own drumbeat rather than follow in his father’s footsteps. He flees to the real world and meets everyone’s favorite actor who’s always driving CG creatures around, James Marsden. The two get into various hijinks that are as nonsensical as they are boring, and none of the animated characters look the least bit convincing in the live-action settings. Hop is cringe-inducingly bad, so bad in fact that its most entertaining aspect is also its most offensive: An evil chick voiced by Hank Azaria, who sounds like a parody of a derogatory Mexican accent. Please don’t ever watch this movie.
12. Despicable Me 3
Directors: Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin
Released: June 30, 2017
You know things are bad when you find yourself begging the movie to cut back to more of the Minions. Released in 2017, Despicable Me 3 is astoundingly devoid of, well, pretty much anything besides loud and busy animated slapstick. In the most “C’mon, really?” moment of Illumination’s history thus far, Gru (Steve Carrell) meets his long-lost twin brother Dru (also Carrell). Dru wants his ex-supervillain sibling to teach him how to be evil, while in the meantime Gru’s new wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) attempts to bond with Agnes (Nev Scharrel, replacing Elsie Fisher), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) and learns how to be a mother. Also, the Minions go to prison!
This movie is just a whole lot of empty air. Like many Illumination films, the three main storylines feel like completely separate shorts all their own, hardly intersecting with one another in any meaningful way, if at all. Despite this being the third film in the main Despicable Me franchise, none of the characters have really changed or aged either. It’s hard to say why any of them like each other, especially Gru and Lucy (her plot with the girls is just terrible), and none of the jokes this time around are able to deliver any solid laughs. There’s no theme, no lessons to be learned, not even a shred of emotional grounding to care about anything happening onscreen at any point. The only saving grace is the villain of the week Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), who’s mostly just left to his own devices throughout the movie.
Directors: Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin
Released: July 10, 2015
It’s definitely not surprising that the first Minions spin-off movie made over a billion bucks at the box office and has been streamed for thousands of hours on televisions at home. Gru’s denim-wearing, yellow pill-shaped henchmen have spread to every corner of our culture at this point and will likely remain long after we’re gone as some of the more bizarre relics of human civilization centuries from now. There’s no escaping the Minions and their constant chattering; audiences obviously can’t get enough of them, so why is their first solo outing from 2015 such an inert adventure?
It’s hard to even remember what happens in this movie as it ultimately goes nowhere. In search of an evil enough master to serve (let’s not try to unpack that), the Minions are hired by supervillain Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock, cashing an easy check) and her husband Herb (Jon Hamm, cashing an even easier check) to steal the Queen’s crown. The appeal of the Minions is in their Looney Tunes-like antics and overall cartoon zaniness, but Minions the movie is severely lacking in the comedy department. The best bits are in the trailer. While not as grating on the senses as you might think, the film suffers from perhaps an even worse crime – being terribly dull.
10. The Grinch (2018)
Directors: Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney
Released: November 9, 2018
You’d be hard-pressed to find another movie that’s on total cruise control more so than 2018’s The Grinch, Illumination’s second attempt at bringing a beloved Dr. Seuss story to life. This retelling of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” is missing the humor, imagination, and energy of previous versions, and yes, that includes the much-maligned Ron Howard take from 2000 starring Jim Carrey. It’s not funny at all. In fact, it’s hard to tell if it’s even trying to be. There’s so little excitement due to the way it approaches everything in such a matter-of-fact manner; like it’s just going through the motions of what you recognize this story to be.
Benedict Cumberbatch in the titular role is… fine. Again, the movie itself isn’t funny, so he’s never really afforded the opportunity to be either. Where are the jokes? Where’s the Christmas magic? Why is Pharrell narrating this? Illumination’s The Grinch passes the previous entries on this list only thanks to the heart of the original source material, which still manages to be present in the adaptation by its end. It doesn’t ever grow three sizes bigger, but at least it’s there. Minimum effort, maximum reward: This film is currently the highest-grossing Christmas film of all time – shockingly. What anybody gets out of it is beyond me.
9. Despicable Me 2 (2013)
Directors: Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin
Released: July 3, 2013
Illumination’s first-ever sequel takes the loving charm of having Gru be a single father to three little girls and forces it into a heteronormative box, pushing hard for the idea that the family “needs” a mother and is incomplete without it. If you’re able to put that aside, then Despicable Me 2 is a solid enough return to the world of Illumination’s flagship franchise. This time around, Gru is called on to join the good guys, and stop a supervillain known as El Macho (Benjamin Bratt), with the help of Anti-Villain League agent Lucy Wilde. Co-directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin return and are able to recapture some of the fun of the original; at the very least, the film is actually funny half the time and the addition of Kristen Wiig as Lucy is a smart touch.
The problem is that, while perfectly passable, Despicable Me 2 often just feels very tame. There’s not much bite to be found here in comparison to the original movie. It comes across as a decent yet ultimately forgettable time. I’ll refrain from making a Disposable Me joke (even though I just did) but the truth at hand is that this sequel is far too safe and just okay enough – the blueprint for every mediocre product Illumination would churn out from then on.
8. The Super Mario Bros. Movie
Directors: Aaron Horvath & Michael Jelenic
Released: April 5, 2023
The first of undoubtedly many more Nintendo adaptations to come, The Super Mario Bros. Movie has become an unstoppable force with no immovable object in sight to slow it down. It holds the record for the highest-grossing video game movie of all time and is the first 2023 film to cross the $1 billion dollar mark, and it’s not hard to see why. Fans of the world’s most famous Italian plumber have been clamoring for a faithful big-screen adventure for decades, and since Mario’s popularity with new generations of children has never really waned thanks to an endless stream of games. Co-produced by Mario creator Shigeru Myiamoto, The Super Mario Bros. Movie has been a hit with nearly every demographic – wiping away the sour taste of 1993’s live-action Super Mario Bros. for those fans who haven’t already reclaimed it as a cult classic. If only this new movie was actually as good as you would think for all of its success!
Okay, credit where credit is due. The Super Mario Bros. Movie goes by as smoothly as butter and is one of the better-looking films to come from Illumination, for sure. Helmed by Teen Titans Go! creators Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, the action and excitement is all here as expected. Jack Black delivers a genuinely great performance as Bowser, of course. Plus, it’s impossible to watch the Rainbow Road sequence without developing an extreme urge to play Mario Kart. That’s about all there is though; any kind of real themes or character development or emotion beyond sugar-boosted hype simply can’t be found.
The film hinges on how Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) can do anything so long as they’re together – the movie is called The Super Mario BROS. movie, after all – so why does Luigi get completely sidelined with nothing to do for 2/3rds of the entire thing? Self-proclaimed adorable sidekick Toad (Keegan-Michael Key actually attempting a unique voice!) also ceases to be a character about halfway through the story, giving more room for Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) who still can’t make much of an impression outside of the fact that you always recognize it’s them voicing the roles. There’s just enough fun to be had here if you’re a Mario fan, but this historical record-breaker of a movie feels a little empty by its end.
7. The Lorax
Director: Chris Renaud
Released: March 2, 2012
Yes, there is a lot of justifiable hatred towards this 2012 adaptation of one of, if not the most quintessential Dr. Seuss tale. It’s certainly gross that this anti-capitalist and pro-environmentalist story was used in dozens of tie-in marketing campaigns for various products including, of all things, cars. But if we take the film at face value, the original vital message is still (mostly) intact. Expanding on the story of the greedy and selfish Once-ler (Ed Helms) and the mystical Lorax (Danny DeVito) proves to be fruitful, allowing for a main character in an Illumination movie to actually show some deeply conflicted emotions and for the story to go to a darker place than most other projects from the studio.
Of course, almost all of that power comes from the source material. The new parallel story that this film adds with Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, and a tiresome “cool” granny voiced by Betty White is wholly unmemorable if not totally distracting. The message is definitely there, though it often feels buried underneath all the unnecessary hijinks. Above all else, the attempt to make the animated forest critters a new form of the Minions falls flat on its face. Nonetheless, for all of its issues, Illumination’s The Lorax is still a moving enough story to inspire those that may be new to it. When you disregard the waves of Once-ler memes and bizarre online fandom that this adaptation produced, the songs aren’t too bad either.
6. The Secret Life of Pets
Director: Chris Renaud
Released: July 8, 2016
An obviously cute concept even when, like far too many Illumination productions, the trailer basically shows all the best parts of it. 2016’s The Secret Life of Pets concocts a story (albeit one that’s a bit uninspired despite itself) based on the idea that our furry friends get up to all sorts of stuff while we’re away. Max (Louis C.K.) loves being an only pet to his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper), so when she brings home a new, big, and shaggy brother named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), conflict immediately arises.
It’s Toy Story with pets, sure, but the movie flies by at a good pace and keeps things lively with enough solid chuckles along the way. Its main issues come from the usual disconnect in its plotlines and how, despite being cute, none of the characters are particularly likable. Max and Duke are both jerks and you do not like Snowball. Who you actually like instead is Kevin Hart. Gidget the small white Pomeranian (Jenny Slate) is innocent. Naturally, this was a massive hit in theaters, setting a new “It’s just good enough” standard for the studio.
5. The Secret Life of Pets 2
Director: Chris Renaud
Released: June 7, 2019
In some ways better and in some ways worse than the first, The Secret Life of Pets 2 embraces the original concept much more than it did previously. Max (Patton Oswalt, replacing Louis C.K.) is given a fresh personality as an anxious overprotector of the new family baby, and the story of him finding strength and courage under the tutelage of a farm dog named Rooster (Harrison Ford, seriously) hits just the right heartwarming notes. And while Gidget is once again stuck in what feels like a totally separate movie, her plotline of having to infiltrate an apartment full of cats is genuinely very funny.
It’s too bad that way too much of the runtime is dedicated to an increasingly ridiculous plot involving Snowball, a new Shih Tzu named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), a circus tiger, an abusive showman (Nick Kroll), and a pack of wolves. The 2019 sequel does manage to tie this thread into Max’s story by the end but it’s still an exceptionally strange and overall lackluster idea to go with. Thankfully, the final moments of The Secret Life of Pets 2 are able to draw out some true emotions for once, and it’s nice to, you know, actually care for the characters.
4. Minions: The Rise of Gru
Director: Kyle Balda
Released: July 1, 2022
I’m just as surprised as you are. In a strange twist of fate, the second Minions movie completely outdoes its predecessor. The art direction and animation in particular are a cut above the rest of Illumination’s projects thanks to a sharp, crisp look and dynamic movements throughout. Acting more like a prequel to Despicable Me than another standalone Minions adventure, the 2022 film follows the early days of upcoming supervillain Gru as he attempts to impress the Vicious 6, an evil supervillain group with plans for world domination.
Minions: The Rise of Gru has a good deal of fun with its 1970s San Francisco setting and is able to keep an impressive (by Illumination standards) focus on the narrative at hand. Sure, all of the new characters are instantly forgettable (what is Alan Arkin doing here??) and many elements likely contradict the Despicable Me movies, but director Kyle Balda and writer Matthew Fogel finally seem to have realized that if you just go for broke and give the Minions some legitimately funny stuff to do, you’ve got it made. The film’s wildly action-packed finale is completely ridiculous yet all the more amusing because of it. Maybe my brain had turned to mush by this point in my Illumination marathon, but I enjoyed this one much more than I probably should’ve.
3. Sing 2
Director: Garth Jennings
Released: December 22, 2021
I went into this assignment fully believing that out of all these movies, I would hate the Sing franchise the most. It’s definitely the most maliciously corporate as far as sheer concept goes. Both films assemble a gaggle of various celebrities (both actors and musical artists) to voice anthropomorphic animals and belt out a massive catalog of Top 40 hits. It’s like the ultimate version of something you put on to distract the kids for a couple of hours, cynically calibrated to make the neurons in your brain fire off with glee at the recognition of your favorite tunes set against a wondrously colorful backdrop.
Yet, somehow, even when so much of it appears to have been created by an AI program, director Garth Jennings (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Son of Rambow) is able to make these movies feel like there’s an actual filmmaker with style behind the wheel. Music is one of the easiest access points to our emotions, and even if it’s unfairly manipulative, there’s enough heart behind both Sing and its 2021 sequel that’s genuinely earned. Sing 2 builds off the goodwill of its predecessor to go twice as big; it doesn’t quite reach the stirring heights of the original (the third act is kinda nonsense) but it does shoot for the moon – and surprisingly lands among the stars.
Director: Garth Jennings
Released: December 21, 2016
Again, this movie has no right to be as good as it is, but the compelling power of nonstop pop songs has proved too great even for this bitter and jaded writer. In all seriousness, 2016’s Sing succeeds at juggling several characters and their individual stories by miraculously making all of them (save for that awful Seth McFarlane mouse) not just likable, but lovable. It’s a very basic premise and formula meant to make you cheer and tap your toes at all the predictable moments, however, it’s delivered with just enough panache to make for an undeniably joyful time.
Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is a down-on-his-luck showman who decides to put together a singing competition in order to save his beloved family theater from closure. The core cast of Moon, Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), Meena (Tori Kelly), Johnny (Taron Egerton), and Ash (Scarlett Johansson), all of whom are looking for a chance to perform in the spotlight, is the narrative’s biggest strength. Again, it’s amazing what you can accomplish when your audience actually cares about the characters onscreen. The emotions soar and a surprising twist halfway through the film gives it a smart boost of inspiration, but the real standout is Illumination’s greatest character they’ve made yet: The wonderful Miss Crawly, played by Garth Jennings himself.
1. Despicable Me
Directors: Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin
Released: July 9, 2010
A shining example of something that got it way too right the first time, Despicable Me, Illumination’s very first feature film, is still their best work. Witty, inventive, and packed with plenty of great gags for children and adults alike, this 2010 game-changer was a true breath of fresh air in the animation scene when it first came out. The tale of a supervillain named Gru who struggles with a change of heart after adopting three orphaned girls still tugs on the heartstrings just as much as it did over a decade ago, and Steve Carell’s performance continues to be a high benchmark for voice acting.
Despicable Me is funny and energetic and has an appreciated mischievousness to it as well. Stories from the perspective of the bad guy may seem old hat now, but this film is able to quickly craft a memorably goofy world of supervillainy and outrageous devices that fully embrace the limitless of the medium of animation. Some Illumination movies are bad, some are just okay, and a couple are good, but this is the only one that’s certifiably great.
My friend who will remain unnamed said the onceler is such a hottie so the movie should be first place
This list is a joke. Completely incorrect. Seems like just randomly picked the order of the movies. Yet another wannabe critic.
I’m sorry, but you’re all just plainly stupid.
i think the best illumination is the super Mario bros movie and the worst is hop and the lorax
I just can’t get past The Lorax, a book about the complicated relationship between business interests and nature, is boiled down to business being a straight up two dimensional cartoon villain and simultaneously schilling for cars. There are not deep enough crevices in hell to stick this movie.
emotional = good