Beginning midday at the halfway mark of a weeklong expo, Netflix’s first ever animation showcase was in many ways the centerpiece event of this year’s Annecy Animation Film Festival.
Over the course of a ninety-minute presentation hosted by Variety’s Peter Debruge, executives and creative teams previewed upcoming films and series from the streamer’s adult, family, and preschool divisions while directors Henry Selick and David Fincher beamed in with behind-the-scenes looks at projects “Wendell & Wild” and “Love, Death & Robots” released episode “Bad Travelling” and rapper Kid Cudi made a surprise appearance to boost his visual-album “Entergalactic.”
And then Guillermo del Toro took the stage, receiving a hero’s greeting as he announced, “Animation is not a f—ng genre. Animation is film!” When the cheers died down, he world premiered eight minutes of footage, finished and unfinished, from his stop-motion fable about a wooden boy with a borrowed soul.
Even without the full title “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” the film’s artistic voice would be unmistakable. In the first excerpt screened we find Geppetto encountering the newly living Pinocchio for the first time. The characters are unlike any versions we’ve seen prior. The inventor, for one, seems thoroughly soused (or at least terribly hung-over), picking himself off floor with bloodshot eyes as empty bottles rattle through his creaky workshop.
Only something is stirring, something is upstairs, and that something announces itself with a fright. As the wooden puppet moves out of the shadows, it does so not with the upright footing of a boy but with the spindly movements of a bug. Newly brought to life, Pinocchio moves at first like a spider, using his arms as two extra legs before (presumably) learning that in order to be real boy one should aim to be bipedal.
“[Our goal was to] push the acting,” the director said of the footage. “To animate silence and unnecessary gestures. We said, let’s make the characters make mistakes. Let’s do in four gestures what others would do in one. Let’s give them itches and headaches [and make this world feel lived in.]”
Following a child living under Fascist rule, the film will complement previous del Toro works “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” rounding out a thematic trilogy for the filmmaker. Del Toro told the Annecy crowd that he’d been working on and towards this project since 2011 – and that his take on the story will focus on imperfect fathers and imperfect sons, hitting a uniquely personal register for him.
Mind you, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is not the only blast of spooky stop-motion hitting Netflix this fall, as the Wednesday showcase kicked off with a first-look at Henry Selick’s “Wendell & Wild.” Written and produced by Selick and Jordan Peele, and with the voice work of Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Angela Basset and “The is Us” star Lyric Ross, the dark comedy follows two mischievous demons (Key and Peele, of course) who wrangle a 13-year-old girl (Ross) into one of their schemes.
We meet the pair as they sit in their underworld prison commiserating their rotten luck. Building a mini-carnival out of construction paper, they suddenly receive a heartening message from the land of the living: Somewhere there’s a girl who can spring them from their servitude. “Rejoice,” says a child’s voice from a bubblegum pink egg. “It’s a new day in your miserable lives!”
“The stories I choose to tell will always be in stop-motion,” said Selick, who marks his return to filmmaking after 13 years with this project. “Stop-motion is the oldest type of animation and really the oldest type of filmmaking there is, because it’s the most magical way to tell stories. It feels like actual magic. That’s why I’ll stick with it.”
Featuring the voices of Chloë Grace Moretz and Riz Ahmed and based on a comic book series set in a techno-medieval world, “Nimona” follows a teenage shape-shifter and the disgraced knight who makes for her unlikely liege.
Directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane boasted of their film’s “punk rock energy, murder, flying cars, shapeshifters and murder, and murder, and murder!” In the footage screened, the teenage rebel Nimona assumes the form of a bright pink rhinoceros as she rampages through a corporate office complex. Originally developed by 20th Century Fox’s Blue Sky Studios, the project was a casualty of the Disney acquisition. Picked up and brought to Netflix by Annapurna last year, the newly revived project is aiming at a 2023 release.
Targeting a family audience, “The Magician’s Elephant” adapts a 2009 book from Newbery Award winner Kate DiCamillo and will mark the directorial debut of VFX supervisor Wendy Rogers. The Annecy crowd discovered characters with angular chins and large, expressive eyes, animated in a lyrical and rather dreamlike CG world that blurs lines between 3D and 2D. The footage ended with a tantalizing hook: When a young man goes to have his fortune read, the soothsayer studies his palms and offers the enigmatic pronouncement, “She lives.”
Landing later this fall, “My Father’s Dragon” adapts another Newbery winning author (this time Ruth Stiles Gannett) and comes courtesy of Nora Twomey, the filmmaker behind the Oscar-nominated “The Breadwinner,” and co-founder of the lauded Irish studio Cartoon Saloon (“The Secret of Kells,” “Song of the Sea,” “Wolfwalkers”).
Twomey presented the painterly 2D project in person, introducing a clip that found a young boy and his large dragon companion traipsing through an enchanted forest also filled with giant talking cats. The winged creature teases his young friend, asking, “Are you scared?” “No,” the boy replies. “I’m cautious.”
Beaming in from Tokyo, Netflix’s head of anime Kohei Obara set up new footage from “Drifting Home” that came with a message from the film’s director, Hiroyasu Ishida. Due in September, the film follows two young best friends forced to steer and navigate an abandoned apartment complex that somehow ends up in the middle of the ocean.
By way of series, the streamer spotlight three titles to represent their respective preschool, kids and adult animation divisions. Carrying the flag for the preschool slate was “Spirit Rangers,” a bright and colorful 3D adventure that follows a trio of siblings who can turn into their spirit creatures to protect the national park they call home. When the characters transform their surroundings do as well, giving the visuals an extra pop. Created by Karissa Valencia, the series boasts an all Native American writers’ room and celebrates indigenous culture and heritage. “We have Native actors and composers as well,” said Valencia. “I like to say we put together the Native Avengers.”
Set between earth and outer space, with a cast that mixes human and alien (with a few cute robots thrown in), the kids series “My Dad the Bounty Hunter” is a child of pop culture. Everything from “The Fifth Element” to “The Last Starfighter” to the films of John Carpenter helped light the spark for this story where two siblings discover their dad isn’t quite the boring suburbanite he lets on.
Show creators Everett Downing and Patrick Harpin called the series “a love letter to animation, to science fiction and to Black families.” The footage took the audience from Annecy to the depths of an outer galaxy, calling to mind “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Finding Nemo” in equal parts as the heroes try to lose a bioluminescent beast in an asteroid field.
“I like any story where the entire cast dies,” David Fincher said of his 19-minute nautical horror short “Bad Travelling” (spoiler alert). “All the better when they’re eaten by crustaceans.” The director delivered the short for the adult-skewing anthology series “Love, Death + Robots,” which released the episode in May. Explaining why he made his animation debut, Fincher gave a fairly succinct answer. “[Netflix said] here’s the funds to work, here are ninety of the most talented people you’ll ever meet, [now go] make something weird.”
Finally, Kid Cudi took over to introduce “Entergalactic,” a so-called “analogue love story in a digital world” that will double as a visual companion project to his upcoming album of the same name. Both will drop on Sept. 30.
With a voice cast that also includes Timothée Chalamet, Jessica Williams, and Ty Dolla Sign, the five-part special reimagines modern New York living with that extra bit of pizzazz only animation can offer. The first of the two clips finds graphic artist Jabari (voiced by the musician, here going by his given name Scott Mescudi) on a drug and drink fueled night out with the boys – which leads, of course, to a terrible hangover the next day. In the second clip, he sparks a connection with hip photographer Meadow (Williams), and as the flirtatious pair begin biking through Manhattan they soon lift off ground, ending up in the stars.
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