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Annecy: James Cunningham Takes Reins on a Donkey Who Yearns to Be Horse Story

Australian director talks about his latest animation project, ‘Unlikeliest Hero,’ pitched at Annecy.

It’s hard not to fall in love with a donkey named Duffy who wants to be a military horse. That’s the premise of James Cunningham’s “The Unlikeliest Hero,” an animated film pitched at the Feature Film Pitches of the Annecy’s Fest’s Mifa market. Although the Australian story’s pitch sounds like a story for children, its roots go much deeper, showing a new side to real-life World War I solider John Simpson Kirkpatrick’s heroics with his own donkey. Cunningham talked to Variety about the story’s historical roots and the horseplay involved in keeping a consistent visual design.

Tell us more about “The Unlikeliest Hero.”

This donkey’s growing up on a farm and lives in Australia and is not happy with being a donkey. He isn’t really happy with who he is, and not realizing his own inner strength yet. One of the things I like about this story is the donkey’s journey of self-discovery mimics that of the young men who went to war at that time, to World War I. The Australians and New Zealanders would take troop ships across the other part of the world and came back quite changed people. They learned so much about themselves and life. Kids get to see a soldier’s journey through the eyes of a donkey.

He escapes onto some cruise ship and tries to become one of the light horse brigade. The military in those days had these horse-mounted divisions, and he’s trying to learn how to be a horse. It looks amazing (to him), all the cool gear. In the midst of all that, the donkey befriends this guy called Simpson, who’s a real person. He’s one of Australia’s greatest war heroes. In reality, he used donkeys to help ferry wounded soldiers down from these incredibly difficult cliffs. What was happening was, you’ve got two seconds going into these situations and they’re not able to easily carry the wounded men down, and this guy’s like: “Well, I can use a donkey to get down the awkward terrain much faster.” And that’s what this guy really did. So Duffy, the donkey, is going through the process of befriending Simpson and gets involved in bringing soldiers down. Through this process, he finds his own value, he finds his own worth. He realizes, “Hey, I actually don’t need to be a war horse, it’s actually pretty good being a donkey.”

Did you have an interest in history before the film?

World War I is quite significant for Australian and New Zealand culture in terms of coming out of the colonial umbrella of England. When England declared war on Germany in 1914, New Zealand and Australia signed on. These countries were so keen and excited — World War I is part of New Zealand and Australia carving out their own self-identity outside of being separate from England. It’s culturally very important. The story is not exactly revisionist history. I would say on a personal level, I’m not much of a historian, but emotionally, the story is very powerful.

What was the creative process like?

This is one of those few situations where a well-developed script was presented to me. I had made a short film back in 2010 called “Poppy” and that was a World War I drama. I wanted to push the boundaries of what motion capture can do and do more than just eye candy and making gags, but actually doing an emotionally moving story with it. That film did really well. So because of that short film “Poppy”—that had a dramatic tone, an emotional tone—I was contacted with the script.

We’re still in the process of trying to raise financing. It’s a difficult project to get up. It’s quite unique, it’s not an easy sell, but it’s one of those things where it’s got potential.

Developing the visual style, from a director’s point of view, is what it will look like and how will the creatures move and getting the tone of them. The style of a “Kung Fu Panda” would be completely wrong for an animated donkey. It needs to look different from “Shrek.” So tonally, it is creating the right style that feels right to the story and guiding the audience with that visual tone. So as motion goes, I’m quite intrigued with using motion capture, as well. It’s something that comes with motion capture in terms of the rhythm–the rhythm of the person’s movement that will help with the tone. One of the other things we’re exploring is to look at motion capture with puppets.

What are the biggest challenges in making animated films like this?

Maintaining the tone and getting that looking consistently true. Working with a constrained budget: The scale that’s required of certain things—there are some big expensive things in how we pull it off. Finding a look we can achieve on a budget that feels appropriate that doesn’t look like we’re doing it on the cheap.

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