OLD BILL

Now in his 80s, Aus­tralia’s favourite koala is still go­ing strong, writes Michael Bodey

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Stephen Romei

Blinky Bill is the koala who can’t be knocked from his tree. More than 80 years af­ter the mis­chievous mar­su­pial first ap­peared as an il­lus­trated char­ac­ter drawn by Dorothy Wall, he lives another life in the new Aus­tralian com­puter-gen­er­ated im­agery film Blinky Bill the Movie.

Pro­ducer Bar­bara Stephen, of Fly­ing Bark Pro­duc­tions, is con­fi­dent the movie will find an au­di­ence, pri­mar­ily be­cause re­search sug­gests as much. The char­ac­ter has been a con­stant on tele­vi­sion screens since the 1980s, with tele­movies and TV se­ries be­ing re­newed and re­cal­i­brated slightly ev­ery decade.

The early 90s movie and TV se­ries, di­rected and pro­duced by Aus­tralian an­i­ma­tion pi­o­neer Yo­ram Gross, were par­tic­u­larly suc­cess­ful across Europe and Asia, and the twodi­men­sional car­toons have been screened con­sis­tently on the ABC.

The jump into another fea­ture film was not an ob­vi­ous move by an Aus­tralian pro­duc­tion com­pany, given the tech­ni­cal and com­mer­cial might of the US an­i­ma­tion stu­dios that tend to dom­i­nate school hol­i­day cine­mas — Pixar, Dream-Works An­i­ma­tion, Blue Sky, Il­lu­mi­na­tion and oth­ers.

But Fly­ing Bark Pro­duc­tions and its li­cence agent re­searched the mar­ket and the re­sults were grat­i­fy­ing. A 2011 Mer­chant­wise study of Aus­tralians aged 18-69 (half of whom had kids aged 0-8) showed 80 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion vis­ually recog­nised Blinky Bill and 49 per cent had read a Blinky Bill book.

In­deed, Wall’s books (in­clud­ing Blinky Bill: The Quaint Lit­tle Aus­tralian, Blinky Bill Grows Up and Blinky Bill and Nutsy), pub­lished by An­gus & Robert­son, now un­der HarperCollins, have never been out of print. The books and TV se­ries have been per­va­sive, as has the char­ac­ter, which was even adopted as a mas­cot by the Aus­tralian Repub­li­can Move­ment in the mid-90s.

Stephen agrees that the dis­tri­bu­tion of Blinky Bill prod­ucts across decades has been in­cred­i­bly suc­cess­ful. Yet it would mean lit­tle if the char­ac­ter didn’t con­nect. “By virtue of it be­ing so Aus­tralian and so rel­e­vant to kids, he is a char­ac­ter that stood the test of time,” she says. “Aus­tralian an­i­mals, Aus­tralian ac­cents — peo­ple still re­spond to that.

“But cer­tainly, about 85 per cent aware­ness, we were quite sur­prised about. One of the rea­sons was the 2-D car­toon had been screen­ing on the ABC up un­til last year. It has had quite a life.” But, she con­cludes, “We wanted to cre­ate a film that would be rel­e­vant to to­day.”

This new life will in­clude a 26-episode an­i­mated se­ries for the Seven Net­work, pro­duced in as­so­ci­a­tion with Ire­land’s Tel­e­gael and In­dia’s Gi­ant Wheel, The Wild Ad­ven­tures of Blinky Bill.

First is the fea­ture film, though. Fly­ing Bark hasn’t held back, re­cruit­ing an in­ter­na­tion­ally mar­ketable cast of voices in­clud­ing Ryan Kwan­ten as Blinky Bill, Brit Ru­fus Sewell, Toni Col­lette, David Wen­ham, Deb­o­rah Mail­man, Richard Roxburgh and Barry Humphries. The film re­quired an A-list cast, strong char­ac­ters and cred­i­ble an­i­ma­tion to be rel­e­vant to au­di­ences used to watch­ing Pixar and DreamWorks films.

That it is, fun­nier than an­tic­i­pated for an adult au­di­ence, and the an­i­ma­tion holds its own, fall­ing be­hind Pixar films only in the de­tail of back­grounds, which is a mi­nor quib­ble. Stevens says screen­ings for in­ter­na­tional dis­trib­u­tors have been pos­i­tive, the an­i­ma­tion qual­ity and char­ac­ter­i­sa­tions highly re­garded.

Fly­ing Bark, for­merly Yo­ram Gross Film Stu­dios, is now part of the Bel­gian-Ger­man media group Stu­dio 100, mean­ing the stu­dio al­ready has Euro­pean part­ners com­mit­ted to reach­ing a broad au­di­ence with the film and build­ing on the suc­cess of its Aus­tralian fea­ture Maya the Bee Movie. De­spite earn­ing only $250,000 last year af­ter a lim­ited re­lease — “be- Blinky Bill as he ap­pears in

the new film, left; David Wen­ham, above right, is the

voice of Jacko the frill­necked lizard; the orig­i­nal book by Dorothy Wall, right cause there was still a bit of anx­i­ety around fam­ily films and an­i­ma­tion and Aus­tralian films” — the film has earned more than $28m glob­ally from 35 coun­tries.

The evo­lu­tion of Blinky Bill vis­ually has been rocky, from its black-and-white to colour il­lus­tra­tions through to an odd pup­pet show ver­sion be­fore the more tra­di­tional 2-D car­toon ver­sion, although even Gross’s koala ini­tially gen­er­ated its own con­tro­versy.

“It was a no-brainer to cre­ate a CGI film,” Stephen says. “The evo­lu­tion of de­sign was some­thing we knew had to change to make it rel­e­vant, but main­tain­ing the char­ac­ter­is­tics of still be­ing cheeky, and he still has a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with mum.”

The film’s sur­prise, and an area Stephen and her co-pro­duc­ers con­sid­ered im­por­tant to dis­tin­guish the film, is its hu­mour. “And it’s re­ally helped along by the cast,” she says. “A lot of the cast re­ally un­der­stood what tone we were go­ing for; a lit­tle bit of ocker hu­mour that didn’t go too far. I felt like the com­edy was the key.”

David Wen­ham, who plays Jacko the frill­necked lizard, jumped in with zeal. “An­i­ma­tion I love!” he says. “I love watch­ing an­i­mated movies, but then as an ac­tor to do them is the best thing be­cause you’ve got a li­cence to be ab­so­lutely ridicu­lous. Or I did on this be­cause I play a lizard. I can be stupid, it’s so good!”

Hope­fully for Fly­ing Bark, this it­er­a­tion of the beloved koala will be bet­ter than good. Li­cens­ing rights and mer­chan­dis­ing rev­enue from Blinky Bill have been in­con­sis­tent, Stephen says.

“The way li­cens­ing and mer­chan­dis­ing work means you have to have se­ries and films out in the mar­ket­place, and it’s ex­tremely com­pet­i­tive. It’s dom­i­nated by some of the key larger block­buster and an­i­mated films such as all the Marvel and Star Wars prod­uct.”

This Blinky Bill life be­gan last year with a range of “clas­sic Blinky Bill” prod­ucts re­leased through Aus­tralia Post stores. “Like any­thing, it’s about man­ag­ing risk, and cer­tainly for us we didn’t want to just bring Blinky back in as a film,” she says.

The risk is pay­ing off as com­mer­cial part­ners jump on board and the mer­chan­dis­ing rum­bles. The Cur­rumbin Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary on Queens­land’s Gold Coast is now a ma­jor li­cence part­ner with a Blinky Bill theme park show. Qan­tas is one of the com­mer­cial part­ners on the film

“Be­cause it ap­peals to a fam­ily au­di­ence and hav­ing an iconic cast and hav­ing that brand history, that’s the dif­fer­ence,” Stephen says.

re­views Blinky Bill — Page 14

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