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Annecy: Reel FX, Jorge R. Gutierrez Announce ‘The Book of Life 2,’ Unveil ‘Kung Fu Space Punch’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Gutierrez, Reel FX's Chuck Peil also charm an Annecy audience with a Work in Progress presentation of 'King Fu Space Punch'

ANNECY, France — In one of the big announcements to go down at this year’s Annecy Festival, Dallas-based Reel FX Animation Studios and director Jorge R. Gutierrez announced Thursday that they are moving forward together on a sequel to “The Book of Life,” one of the biggest of breakout U.S. independent animated features this decade.

On “The Book of Life 2,” Gutierrez will direct. Reel FX Animation Studios produces. The sequel is envisaged as stereoscopic 3D. The original drew on the “core of the Day of the Dead: That if you talk about someone, sing their songs, remember them they are with you,” Gutierrez told Variety.

He added: “The sequel grew from that and people asking what was gonna happen with the characters, what’s gonna happen to the gods? The sequel embraces all these things and, in a weird way, is a continuation of the story with everybody you love from the first movie.”

“The Book of Life 2” is in early discussions. The original “The Book of Life” turned on a love triangle between childhood friends, the sensitive Manola guitar strumming (Diego Luna) and preening Joaquin (Tatum) whose competition for the hand of the vivacious Maria (Zoe Saldana) causes the gods to lay wagers on who will win and, with that, the future of the world.

“I am a big fan of romantic movies. I always want to find out what happens afterwards. That’s one question we will ask during the sequel,” Gutierrez hinted.

Regarding creatives and producers, “my dream would be to get the band back together again,” he added.

Produced by Guillermo del Toro, distributed by 20th Century Fox and featuring wooden puppet-like figures from Mexico’s Day of the Dead and songs by two-time Academy Award winner Gustavo Santaolalla (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Babel”), “The Book of Life” earned $100.5 million worldwide and upbeat reviews: “‘The Book of Life’ is a rare cartoon feature that doesn’t just deserve to be seen in 3D, but practically demands it,” Variety sentenced.

“The movie exploded at comic book conventions. People dressed up as the characters, they get tattoos of the characters,” Gutierrez recalled.

Gutierrez, his wife Sandra Equihua and “Book of Life” art director Paul Sullivan went as far as to design a poster (pictured) for “The Book of Life 2,” for Sequel an art exhibition of film posters of hypothetical film sequels. “The fan reaction was insane. I had to keep explaining that it was for an art show,” Gutierrez said.

“‘The Book of Life” is “one of those rare films that has really continued to build long after its release,” said Reel FX’s CEO Steve O’Brien. “There is an amazing and passionate underground fanbase.”

Reel FX held off from a sequel announcement, however, until it had cleared the rights, he added. But now the sequel’s for real.

“The Book of Life 2” will be “the  continuation of an extraordinary story that technically and creatively captures the vision Jorge had of this fabulous world,” said Chuck Peil, Reel FX head of business development and strategic partnerships, who is in Annecy with Gutierrez.

He went on: “The original film broke ground in so many ways and we hope that the sequel will have the same impact for the fanbase.”

Commencement of development on “The Book of Life 2,” was formally teased at the end of a Work in Progress presentation of Gutierrez’s “Kung Fu Space Punch” in Annecy on June 15.

Much further into development – “on ‘The Book of Life 2,’ Reel FX and I have just met at the cafe, on ‘Kung Fu Space Punch,’ I’m pregnant,” Gutierrez joked – is a “funny mash-up of ‘90s Kung Fu films, Spaghetti Westerns of the ‘60s, and the epic space adventures of the ‘70s, ‘80s and today, Gutierrez has said.

Variety has had access to key concept art (pictured). In it, Johnny Holliday, a charming American biker space outlaw, leads a motley wild bunch of rebel bandits in a collision course with legendary villain Kathulo to determine the fate of the galaxy. Along the way, Johnny also has to face off with Ramona Sanchez, a hot-headed childhood rival who now protects their town of Rio Bravo as a hard-ass hardcore cop, enforcing the law with an iron fist.

“I want to make a movie about an American Kung Fu cowboy guy in space who falls in love with a Mexican girl,” Gutierrez said at the Annecy Work in Progress.

He added: “I love outlaws that go to Mexico and find their souls. I love Westerns. It’s my favorite genre. As a Mexican, we are always the bad guys. I like the ones where the bad guys are Americans.”

“Movies are not about characters, or worlds, or stories. I believe movies are about relationships. For me that’s the core of the film: A Mexican girl and American guy. In the movie, Johnny has to grow a conscience and Ramona has to grow a heart,” Gutierrez argued.

Conceived as a movie, “Kung Fu Space Punch” could also develop into a mini-series. “Guillermo [del Toro] advised me that these days you can’t just write a story, it’s transmedia, you are building a world that exists outside the movie,” Gutierrez said at the Work in Progress which must rate as one of the funniest in recent years with Peil recounting Reel FX’s back story: It launched 22 years ago and entered animation animating the figure of a Mexican character for a tiny local Mexican restaurant in Dallas, grew to become a significant work-for-hire company for big Hollywood studios but always viewed narrative-based long-format animated theatrical features as its ultimate goal. Gutierrez laced his commentary of “King Fu Space Punch” with multiple anecdotes.

“‘The Book of Life 2’ and ‘Kung Fu Space Punch’ build on our partnership with Jorge as a director with a clear and unique voice, and underscore our strategy to bring distinctive animated films to theaters worldwide,” O’Brien commented.

Development on “Kung Fu Space Punch” has currently been financed by Reel FX Animation Studios, said O’Brien. Reel FX will now reach out to discuss the project with potential domestic and international partners, he added.

“Kung Fu Space Punch” is “my love letter to other cultures that really influenced me growing up on the border between Mexico and the U.S.,” Gutierrez said.

He explained: “My favorite thing about the border is that people take things from all over the world and make them their own,” recalling seeing Bruce Lee movies with his father as a kid and “thinking Bruce Lee was Mexican.”

For Gutierrez, “the idea behind the movie is that, in order for things to work out you have to embrace the other side and we are a lot more similar than we think.” He also noted that he was excited about the capacity for sci-fi movies to talk about the present.

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