Malaysia’s Great Leap Forward
KRU’s Kartun launches its first CG feature, Ribbit. By Mercedes Milligan and Tom McLean.
Visitors to last month’s Niagara Integrated Film Festival last month were there for an event milestone: for the first time, an animated feature was included in the competition program. The CG-animated film, Ribbit, is a family friendly movie and the first project for Malaysian studio KRU’s new animation division, Kartun Studios.
Written and directed by Kartun’s CCO Chuck Powers, the “frog-out-of-water” story follows amphibious dreamer Ribbit (voiced by Sean Astin), who doesn’t fit in at all with his frog brethren. Deciding he is a human prince trapped in a frog’s body, he sets out with his flying squirrel buddy Sandy (Cherami Leigh) to find a human princess to break the spell. He’s helped along by wise bat Deepak (Russell Peters) and stylish toucan Terrence (Tim Curry), but danger lurks in the Amazon rainforest.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a storyteller whether it’s as an actor or as a writer or as a director,” says Powers, a first-time director who has climbed up the animation ladder since moving to Southeast Asia 13 years ago in search of voice-over work.
“It was a bit of a stepping stone. I didn’t come from a traditional animator background like a lot of directors come from. They’ll either be animators or more often they’ll come from the story department, they’ll be storyboard art- finally settling on Crest, which had recently completed Alpha & Omega. What followed was three years of polishing the concept and diving in to production.
Something to Croak About
Adding to the film’s global appeal — Ribbit is currently slated in 80 countries, including Russia, China, the United Kingdom and Germany — is the high quality voice cast, put together by L.A.-based casting director Bernie Van De Yacht, who also worked on Alpha & Omega. Powers is especially pleased that most of the cast were his first choices for the roles.
For Deepak, who has an Indian accent, Russell Peters was a perfect fit. While less well known in the United States, Peters is one of the most popular comedians in the world and is known for his bits about growing up in an Anglo-Indian home in Canada. Powers likewise had Tim Curry in mind for Terrence from the first. Curry’s extensive theater, live-action and voice-over experience was a boon to the production.
“Getting Sean Astin was really interesting,” says Powers. “One of the things I liked about Sean’s voice is that he has a gentle, kind quality to his voice, and Ribbit is like the eternal optimist. In real life, he would be like a computer geek or something, he doesn’t really fit in with the in-crowd but he’s just such a nice guy and I kept finding that about Sean when I’d listen to his voice in all the different shows he did.”
The director shares that when Astin received the script, which included a picture of Ribbit, he realized it was meant to be since he and his wife had filled their home with frog collectibles.
With Ribbit set to roll out worldwide, Powers continues to focus on driving Kartun’s IPs and pursuing co-production opportunities, especially in North America. He notes that as Southeast Asian studios continue to improve their artistic and storytelling quality levels, larger studios would be wise to push more animation and development work to the region where it can be done for fractions of the costs of producing in the United States.
And Powers has picked up some important advice for directors everywhere: Stay out of the artists’ way as much as possible. “I tell people sometimes that I think a good director is more like a head cheerleader; our job is to let some insanely talented people be motivated and to let them feel like it’s not paint by numbers.” Ribbit premiered at the Niagara Integrated Film Festival last month, and opens in theaters in late summer.