Disney nabs rights to 'Willows'-based animation pic

A lucky breeze blew through the trees for a pair of USC film school grads and their artist partner, as Disney has agreed to buy for mid-six figures worldwide rights to their treatment, art and related materials for a futuristically revamped, live-actioner based on the century-old animal adventure “The Wind in the Willows.”

Veteran producer Neal Moritz, who has been mentor to Corey May and partner Michael “Dooma” Wendschuh through the Peter Stark Producing Program at the University of Southern California, was asked by Disney to provide honchoing experience for the tyros through his Original Film company.

Wendschuh and May graduated from the Stark Program last spring, then came across artwork and sculptures by Baruch Inbar at the Art Center College of Design’s thesis show in Pasadena. Inbar’s work rethought Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 children’s tale, which features four main animals in a series of adventures. Inbar added a Jules Verne-influenced sensibility, an approach Wendschuh and May said could be the basis for a live-action film featuring either computer-generated characters or CGI-enhanced costumed performers.

Eventually, the pair’s Sekretagent Prods. cut a partnership with Inbar, spent six months honing treatment and artwork, then tapped Moritz and other Stark contacts to pitch DreamWorks, Disney, Col, etc. Disney, where May was an intern, won out.

Under the deal, Wendschuh and May secured executive producer credits, and Inbar will be a co-producer and contribute to the film’s design. Under the deal, Disney acquired rights not only to the treatment Wendschuh and May have written but also Inbar’s sculptures and artwork.

Decisions, decisions

Disney is searching for a director, and choice of scripter awaits that decision. That in turn will set budget, which is expected to be substantial, given project’s likely reliance on visual effects.

Book is in U.S. public domain, though some overseas rights to the name won’t expire until 2003, so the movie’s ultimate title remains unclear.

A 1996 Sony-backed version of “The Wind in the Willows,” also known as “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” was written and directed by Terry Jones and featured several other Monty Python alums. It surfaced briefly to solid reviews but little commercial success in an extremely limited opening. Several animated TV and film projects, including a 1949 Disney short, also have tackled story.

Elizabeth Ziemska of United Talent Agency represented Sekretagent. Nina Jacobson, prexy of Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group, will oversee pic with veepee of production Jeff Clifford and director of development Kristin Burr. Disney has worldwide distribution rights, with the film likely to go out under the Walt Disney Pictures label.

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