TORONTO – The comical aliens that abound in the upcoming sci-fi feature “Escape from Planet Earth” are more than just cute — they’re leading a Canadian invasion into the lucrative big-screen animation scene, says the film’s Canuck director and co-writer, Cal Brunker.
Not only is the slick 3D adventure helmed by a southern Ontario-bred filmmaker, its eye-popping visuals were crafted by the Vancouver-based animation company Rainmaker Entertainment Inc.
Meanwhile, a partnership with U.S. indie giant The Weinstein Company gives “Escape from Planet Earth” powerful backing to make a real impact, Brunker said in a recent interview from Vancouver.
“We’ve been leaders in animation for a long time — I mean, a lot of our grads from Sheridan (College) are working on all the big U.S. movies — but this is one of the first films to have such a major chunk of the creative part of the process done in Canada,” said Brunker, sneaking in a plug for his Toronto-area alma mater, where he studied animation.
“The beauty of it is we’ve teamed with the Weinsteins who have this incredible international reach, this incredible relationship with cast and talent out there, and obviously a great track record in terms of making great films. So we’ve taken the best of both worlds from that and built this.”
The otherworldly tale centres on a pair of blue-skinned brothers from the planet Baab who find themselves trapped on a dangerous world known as “the dark planet.” It’s actually Earth, but it earned a deadly intergalactic reputation thanks to the nefarious activities of a military general who lured countless aliens to a secret desert prison called Area 51.
Brendan Fraser provides the voice of cocky space adventurer Scorch Supernova while Rob Corddry plays his genius but geeky brother Gary. When both are trapped alongside other strange creatures at Area 51, it’s up to Gary’s nine-year-old son Kip, voiced by Jonathan Morgan Heit, to save the day.
The stellar cast is rounded out by Ricky Gervais, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jane Lynch, Jessica Alba and Sofia Vergara, with “Star Trek” hero William Shatner as the dastardly General Shanker.
Sly nods to sci-fi favourites and pop culture icons are sprinkled throughout but Brunker says he made sure to keep such gags to a minimum, admitting it’s “certainly not my esthetic.”
“For the most part it’s not one of those kind of pop culture-y reference films. I love movies that are timeless and you can watch 10 years from now and still have the same impact and I think our movie does that for the most part,” he says.
“A lot of times the pop culture stuff comes from a place of fear as people go, ‘I don’t know if this is going to connect to an audience if we don’t give them something that’s right on their doorstep today.” … But the truth is you can relate to a film that’s set hundreds of years ago as much as you can relate to something that’s in current day, or the future, or any one of these things because we connect with the human experience and the characters.”
The 34-year-old Brunker directs from a screenplay co-written with his high school pal Bob Barlen, a fellow native of Kitchener, Ont., who studied film at Ryerson University and the Canadian Film Centre.
Brunker’s feature directorial debut comes after several years as a story artist on big animated films including “Horton Hears a Who!,” “Despicable Me” and “Ice Age: Continental Drift.”
He scored the directing gig in late summer 2010 after “Escape from Planet Earth” weathered a tortured development process involving original writer-director Tony Leech and producer Brian Inerfeld.
Leech and Inerfeld later became embroiled in a nasty legal battle with the Weinsteins, which Brunker dismissed as part of the long journey many animated films undergo on the way to the big screen.
“This happens with a lot of movies. If you dig into even a lot of the great Pixar films and stuff, there’s quite frequently a lot of changes over the years because these things take a long time to develop.”
When Brunker was brought in, the basic idea of an alien prison at Area 51 was already established but he says the script “needed some serious overhauling.” He called his old pal Barlen for help.
“What we really brought to the table was figuring out the heart of the story: the brothers’ relationship, the family relationship and ultimately some of the big plot stuff about why Area 51 exists and what the evil general’s plan is and how that’s all going to fit together,” he says of the project, which retains a story credit for Leech and Cory Edwards and a producing credit for Inerfeld.
“It really was a kind of a ‘start fresh’ approach when we hit the ground.”
Brunker admits that “a lot” of suggestions came from producing giant Harvey Weinstein, a mogul famous for micromanaging his directors. But says he and Barlen still had room to do their own thing.
“Harvey’s a really passionate guy and is really excited about this movie so he jumps in and will feel very strongly about something. Other things he will act as more of a catalyst to just try and get you to keep thinking and keep coming up with new ideas.”
Brunker says he wanted to make sure the film didn’t pander to kids, even if that’s the primary audience.
“(Kip) will do heroic stuff but we wanted it to be within the limitations that kids really face and so that any of his successes and heroic deeds and stuff all feel that much bigger because the stakes are real for the kid,” he says, adding that he also tried to craft a strong emotional core through the Supernova family.
“I don’t ever want to make a message film but I think when you make a movie there are so many decisions to make in the process that your world view ends up sneaking in there.”
He says the project catapults Rainmaker into a whole new league and is curious to see where this leads the Vancouver company, noting “they’ve proven with this movie that they’ve got the technical ability to compete on the world stage.”
Brunker traces his directing break to a former Disney colleague who ended up at Rainmaker and remembered his work. When Rainmaker began looking for a new director Brunker’s name was thrown into the ring and he got a life-changing chance to pitch to Harvey Weinstein.
“We connected and the rest is history. It really was about being prepared when the time came that I would get my shot. And I’d certainly been working hard for it so when the door opened up I ran through it as fast as I could,” he says.
“I’ve been working towards this my whole life. While it’s been the hardest couple years of my life it’s also been the most satisfying.”
“Escape from Planet Earth” opens Friday.