Blue Sky Studios to produce feature toon

“Ice Age” helmer Chris Wedge will next direct “Leaf Men,” a feature toon that Fox has committed to finance through its Fox Animation label, with Blue Sky Studios producing.

The development comes after a fascinating tug-of-war over the project between Fox, Blue Sky Studios co-founder Wedge and Disney-based animation rival Pixar.

“Leaf Men,” an adaptation of the William Joyce illustrated children’s book “The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs,” was originally set at Fox Animation by Wedge, his “Robots” cohort Joyce and screenwriter Jim Hart.

Wedge at some point got the studio’s blessing to find a new home for the picture. He turned to Pixar. Wedge has a close relationship with the label’s topper, John Lasseter, dating back to their beginnings on “Tron.”

Disney and Pixar jumped and got as far as thinking they had a deal with Wedge. But when they moved to close with Fox on the project’s underlying rights, Pixar, Wedge and his UTA reps were surprised to discover that Fox wasn’t letting go of “Leaf Men” after all.

A Fox spokesman would not comment on the back and forth with Pixar, saying only that Fox Animation has now greenlit the film and is glad that Wedge remains in the studio fold.

The “Leaf Men” book focuses on a troop of bugs that try to save a garden and need to battle an evil spider queen. The bugs turn to the mythical Leaf Men to help them.

Sources in the animation community who followed Wedge’s near move to Pixar said it would have been unusual to see him spend the next several years making an animated film for a rival, since he’s so closely identified with Blue Sky and its role in making Fox a family film powerhouse.

But Wedge — who directed the original Oscar-winning “Ice Age” and then “Robots” — has been focused on his own directing career for some time, developing such live-action projects as “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” at Warner Bros. Blue Sky has a strong bench of directors topped by Carlos Saldanha, who co-directed the second and third “Ice Age” films, and who is prepping Blue Sky’s next major animated effort, “Rio.”

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