Mideast shows cartoon mojo

'Tooterville,' other projects boost market

For a region where so much appears to be larger than life, it’s probably more of a surprise that the Middle East hasn’t contributed more to the field of animation than it already has. That may soon change, however, with a series of developments in recent months that could finally lay the foundations for a Middle Eastern toon industry.

Canadian CCI Entertainment and Dubai-based Blink Studios announced a deal in October to produce “Tooterville,” among other projects, while France’s selection of Tehran-born Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical “Persepolis” as its foreign-language Oscar rep underlined the rich potential of storylines from the Middle East.

The linkup between Dubai-based multimedia shingle Arab Media Group and MTV Networks Intl. to launch Nickelodeon Arabia also comes only months after Jordanian-based animation house Rubicon announced a strategic partnership with MGM Studios. Targeted for 2008, Nickelodeon Arabia will pair existing Nick skeins with locally produced Arabic-language content. The first part of the deal will be a co-financing and co-producing joint venture on “Pink Panther & Pals,” a 26-part series based on the “Pink Panther” characters as kids, set to finish production by the end of 2008.

MGM also picked up U.S. rights to Rubicon’s 13-part animated series “Ben & Izzy” as part of the agreement. The 3-D animated skein, about an American boy and an Arab boy who travel through time on an archaeological expedition, will be completed by the end of 2007.

The show is part of Rubicon CEO Randa Ayoubi’s attempts to create a world-class animated shingle in Jordan and also offer positive, educational entertainment to auds in the West and the Arab world.

“The Middle East is an untapped market in terms of entertainment,” Ayoubi says. “It’s potentially a huge market in terms of the number of people and the age of the population, with so much of it skewed under the age of 25.”

Ayoubi has already started development on a second season of “Ben & Izzy,” which will see the two characters travel to Japan and China. Next up is a 3-D feature, with work set to start on that by the end of 2008.

Another Jordanian animation maven is hoping to deliver the Arab world’s answer to Warner Bros.’ “300.” Suleiman Bakhit, topper of Aranim Media Factory, has a string of projects in development based on bringing Arab mythology and historical figures to auds in Jordan, the Mideast and beyond. These include radical redos of the stories of “A Thousand and One Nights”; legendary warrior Saladin, most recently depicted in Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven”; and individual stories of heroism during the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Even the Gulf, traditionally the most conservative of Mideast territories, is getting in on the act. This year, Saudi Arabia produced its first animated short, the 27-minute “Tariq Ibn Ziad,” tracing the story of Saudi Arabia’s eighth-century Muslim Andalusian commander, directed and written by Ayman Fouda.

“It cost us about $1,000-$10,000 per minute to make the film,” Fouda says. “Obviously, Walt Disney spends a lot more than that, but this use of animation is still new in the Arab world. There is a long tradition of caricature in the Arab world, but we need to develop the culture and training.”

The U.A.E. has scored a surprise hit with “Freej,” the Emirates’ first animated skein, which revolved around a modern-day Gulfi family. Eye-pleasing look of the show, which portrays the traditional Muslim headdress of the hijab in primary colors, has been a local hit ever since its preem in 2006 on Dubai TV.

The show is the brainchild of Mohammed Saeed Hareb, who first got the idea while majoring in animation at Boston U. He received a startup loan from the Sheik Mohammed Foundation for Young Business Leaders, which he has since paid back, and delivered a second series, with a third nearing completion. Hareb also is set to launch an English-language version of the show in 2008 on popular satcaster Dubai One, thanks to a sponsorship deal worth $15 million with U.A.E. telecom operator Du.

“The Middle East is so rich with myths like Aladdin,” Hareb says. “We wanted to create and repackage something out of the Arabic traditions which would relate to the 21st-century generation here. To be honest, three years ago I wouldn’t have had any hope that we could create an animation industry here, but if you look around at all the things happening now, I think that in the next five years, with all the talent that is now capable of expressing themselves, we might be able to build one.”