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Euro tooners dig underground

Continent's edgy animators draw applause for envelope-pushing fare

PARIS — “Fritz the Cat” (1972) was the first, but since then precious few outlaw heroes have graced the spic-and-span world of animated pics with quite such disgraceful delight. However, all that looks set to change thanks to a new wave of European toonsmiths whose underground sensibilities are a credit to Robert Crumb’s feline inspiration.

In a canny piece of programming, the organizers at this year’s Cannes Film Festival created considerable hubbub by giving slots to two of the least kiddie-friendly toon pics you are ever likely to encounter. Closing out Critics Week was “Free Jimmy,” a British-Norwegian co-production written and helmed by Richard Nielsen. The $19 million CGI pic recounts the adventures of a stoned circus elephant, Jimmy, who has to outwit a bunch of deranged drug dealers. It contains much swearing, general bad behavior and what is being billed as the first 3-D digitally animated sex scene.

“My biggest influence is American underground comics, which I read when I grew up in the ’70s, stuff by Robert Crumb and ‘The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers,’ ” says Nielsen. “The comics I myself have written all have very underground themes: sex, drugs, violence and foul language.”

Also screening at Cannes in the Directors Fortnight was “Princess,” a $1.5 million ultra-violent slice of 2-D animation co-written/helmed by Denmark’s Anders Morgenthaler and produced by Lars Von Trier’s Zoetrope outfit. Pic is a raw fairytale about a lapsed priest who goes on the rampage trying to destroy all the existing X-rated images of his porn star sister, who died after years of drug abuse.

“I’m no moralist. It was not my idea to point the finger with my film, but I was interested in depicting porn as a business,” says Morgenthaler who was influenced by Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki’s book on prostitution, “Tokyo Lucky Hole.” “I wanted to make a film about how I might feel if my mother or sister became a porn star.”

In their own ways, both Nielsen and Morgenthaler contributed to the adult nature of their material by developing a less pristine animation style.

“It’s got a grungy look which I think fits in perfectly with the film’s tone,” says “Free Jimmy’s” British co-producer Sarah Radclyffe. “It doesn’t have those clean kind of primary colors that kids are after and that you see in more family-oriented material.”

Meanwhile “Princess'” producer Sarita Christensen describes the animation Morgenthaler came up with as being not far removed from Von Trier’s Dogma ethic. “Its style is something much more minimalist that we have grown accustomed too,” she concludes.

“Princess'” relatively small budget has so far excluded any English-language version, whereas the much more expensively assembled “Free Jimmy” is being primed for the international market.

Radclyffe sent the pic to Simon Pegg (“Shaun of the Dead”), who enthusiastically agreed to write English dialogue to appeal to a more Anglo-American sense of humor, as opposed to literally translating the Norwegian. A cast of well-known voices was assembled, including Woody Harrelson as the sleazy lead character Roy and Jim Broadbent as a drunken Russian circus master.

Apart from “Free Jimmy” and “Princess,” there are at least half a dozen European adult-themed animation pics either already completed or in the works.

Disney has pre-bought Gallic pic “Renaissance,” a B&W toon thriller set in a Paris of the near future, on the basis of its script and a four-minute pilot in 2003.

Miramax will release the $18 million pic in the States this fall. On its release in Gaul this spring, pic, directed by first-timer Christian Volkman, sold a respectable 350,000 tickets.

Paris-based company Celluloid Dreams is handling international sales for two ambitious animated projects due to be ready in 2007: “Grassroots,” a British-German produced adaptation of Gilbert Shelton’s “The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers” comics, directed in Claymation by Dave Borthwick (“The Magic Roundabout”) from a script by Shelton himself; and “Fear(s) of the Dark,” a French-produced pic about nightmares with drawings and animation from 10 internationally known comicbook artists.

“What we find particularly interesting about these two projects is that, like comics, we can bring interesting, often subversive material to a wider audience in more palatable form than in conventional feature films,” says Gordon Spragg of Celluloid Dreams.

Meanwhile French helmer Sylvain Chomet, who made the Oscar-nominated “Triplets of Belleville,” is hard at work on two projects. “The Illusionist,” based on a script by the late Jacques Tati, will no doubt appeal to adults. Pic, produced by Pathe, stars an animated version of Tati as an aging magician who befriends a girl in Scotland and struggles to tell her the truth about his magic.

“I think there is a trend of discovering new ways of telling stories with heavier themes,” says Zoetrope’s Christensen. “I think one of the big problems is that we can’t make films which tell heavy stories any more because nobody will watch them, that’s why animation has become so interesting.”

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