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Kris Pearn on Netflix’s Second Animated Feature, ’The Willoughbys’

ANNECY, France  —  A significant part of the future of the world new global streaming platforms will depend on their appeal to family audiences. So it’s no small matter that, in the space of eight hours at France’s Annecy Festival, Netflix will unveil for the first time ever to a discerning industry audience a string of clips from its first two original animated movie films: Sergio Pablos’ “Klaus,” out this Christmas, and Kris Pearn’s “The Willoughbys,” scheduled for a Spring 2020 bow.

Both are major steps for Netflix. A few days out from Annecy, history looked to rest lightly on the shoulders of Pearn as with a massive enthusiasm – he’s a self declared optimist, he says – and at an antic pace he fielded questions from Variety on his much anticipated title, which will help shape a public perception of Netflix’s animated movie ambitions.

Currently in production at Bron Animation in Vancouver, given that “The Willoughbys” adapts the same-titled children’s book by Lois Lowry, something of the plot is known. Charged by the parents to drop off a baby left at their family home at the sweet factory of Commander Melanoff, the four Willoughby children hatch a plan to orphan themselves, dispatching their parents on a potentially lethal world tour. But, in what writer-director Pearn, a co-director on “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2,” describes as a coming-of-age narrative, the children, as the make contact with a modern world, begin to wonder if they really want to be orphans at all.

Anticipating his presentation in Annecy at a June 12 focus, Netflix Animation: A Studio Without Borders, Pearn drilled down on further details of “The Willoughbys,” teasing production and character design and his enthusiasm for the weird.

Why now for “The Willoughbys”?  Who is this film for?

This film is an old fashioned story riddled with tropes, but it’s for a contemporary audience. It’s a love letter to kid logic, unconventional families and awkward childhoods.  It’s a story for anybody who struggles to fit in.  It’s a story for families about families that struggle to be perfect families and often fail.  A comedy about love. We can’t choose who we’re related to, but we can choose who we love… And love is the glue that holds a family together. It’s worth fighting for… even if it’s awkward, and messy, and often kinda weird. I like weird.  No… I’m lying…  I LOVE weird.

What attracted you in particular to adapting Lois Lowry’s book?

One of the things that hit me right away when I read the book was just how audacious and absurd the humor was. It reminded me of the stories I grew up loving: “Matilda,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” It had all those kind of Roald Dahl-like, or Mordecai Richler tropes. It’s a really rich story. One of the ideas that she plays with is an old-fashioned family in a modern world, another the trope of the orphan journey. It’s a story about these mischievous children  who wish they were orphans… But the twist is they have parents. That sets up the absurd comedy of it all.

Can you walk us through the main characters?

Our main protagonist is Tim Willoughby, an old fashioned kid with a bitter exterior, a heart of gold and really short pants, voiced by Will Forte. His main foil and ally is his little sister Jane, voiced by a Canadian singer Alessia Cara. She’s got a big voice and a lot to say; unfortunately nobody wants to listen. To balance out the ensemble there are their twin brothers, who share everything from a sweater to a name – they’re both called Barnaby, voiced by Sean Cullen.

The parents are described in a brief synopsis as “selfish”….

They are cared for by their loving parents, voiced by Martin Short, and Jane Krakowski. When I say “loving” I mean they are so madly in love with each other, they don’t have any left over for their kids. The Willoughbys live together in an old fashioned house. They don’t go out very often. So it’s sort of like “Grey Gardens” meets “All in the Family.” But the most important character is the cat, the narrator, voiced by our executive producer, Ricky Gervais, this whole story is told from its perspective.

The Willoughbys all have red-yarn hair….

There’s a sense that they are all sort of strung together with yarn, the red yarn of fate that bonds them all together.  At the beginning of the movie they are kind of a perfect family, children parents and a beautiful home, but they don’t quite understand what family  means. So the movie challenges them to re examine what it means to be a family.

The colors looks heavy, dark at the beginning of the movie….

Yes. Production designer Kyle McQueen came on board very early. We started the film with a sense of those Victorian era homes that you find in older cities in North America. We wanted to make this feel like a family that had a great past, a lot of history. but here’s also a color-shift, which mirrors the film’s coming of age narrative, as the kids discover the modern world, the movie becomes more like a storybook, and bright colors begin to fill up the set.

The film’s obviously CGI, but these days there’s a pressure to create an original look. Yours looks highly stylized…

Yeah we’re doing CGI, but we’re trying to play with style. I want the characters to feel like toys and the world to feel like it’s from a cat’s point of view, so we’re using hyper textures, and a sort of stop-motion style. I loved working for Aardman and as a 2D animator who shifted to  stop-motion, there’s a lot of those principles that I’m attracted to in the art form.

What will you be showing at Annecy?

It’s the first time we lift the veil on the movie. Nothing has been seen publicly really from the film. So we’ll show where we are in production, work in progress animated sequences.

And what state is the production in?

We’re about 40% animated, 15% lit, and scheduled for a spring 2020 release.

CREDIT: Netflix

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