Hitting theaters today, Rodrigo Perez-Castro’s new hand-drawn animated feature, starring and executive produced by Sofia Vergara, beautifully portrays the region’s vibrant but steadily disappearing rainforests alongside a message of hope for a more environmentally sustainable future.
It’s a paradise where armadillos wield magic, frogs and butterflies take flight on the backs of jabiru birds, and flowers of every shape and color, and animals of every species, live together as family. Venezuela native and Upstairs animation studio owner Anabella Sosa-Dovarganes says her film Koati is “complete nonsense” when it comes to scientific accuracy. But, at the same time, it’s an incredibly beautiful testament to her beloved Latin America, the creatures that inhabit its rainforests, and the timeless power of 2D animation.
“I'm very proud,” says Sosa-Dovarganes. “What we did was amazing. And I think people are going see that when they see the film.”
Releasing in theaters today, Koati follows the heroic adventure of three unlikely heroes - Nachi (Sebastián Villalobos), a free-spirited coati; Xochi (Evaluna Montaner), a fearless monarch butterfly; and Pako (Eduardo Franco), a hyperactive glass frog - who embark on an exciting journey to prevent a wicked coral snake named Zaina (Sofía Vergara) from destroying their homeland of Xo.
This is the first animated feature film produced by Upstairs, along with Los Hijos de Jack and Latin We. With animation by long-time Disney collaborator Toon City Animation, the film not only features actor Vergara as the film’s main antagonist, but the Modern Family star also serves as executive producer.
Nearly all Koati’s main cast and key production team members, like Sosa-Dovarganes, have connections to Latin America, with Vergara hailing from Colombia, production designer Simón Valdimir Varela from El Salvador, art directors Lubomir Arsov and Fernando Sawa from Argentina, and director Rodrigo Perez-Castro from Mexico.
“I want the audience to be moved,” says Perez-Castro, who’s known for his storyboard work on Ferdinand and Rio 2. “Laugh, cry, all the good stuff. But I hope, as they fall in love with the characters, that they gain awareness about the natural world that is disappearing. Because it's up to children to make sure that world survives.”
It’s no secret that biodiversity has become an increasingly rare commodity in our world. For Sosa-Dovarganes, it’s been a 10-year journey coming up with a story that would not only highlight all the unique regions of Latin America but also draw attention - using hand-drawn 2D animation - to the natural world and endangered species within its forests that are also rapidly disappearing.
“The seed of this project was to make sure that we sang to Latin America and its qualities, but one of the reasons the world really needs Latin America is because, right now, that’s home to the vast majority of rainforests,” explains Sosa-Dovarganes, whose team has partnered with WWF (World Wide Fund For Nature) to promote more sustainable lifestyles and the conservationist message of the film. “When we started creating the film, we handpicked the animals that we knew were in danger to be the characters.”
She adds, “We really wanted this film to be different. We did not choose the most beautiful animals that people would naturally be drawn to. We chose those that represented who we are as a culture and those who most needed our attention.”
Every animal represented in the film, except the coati protagonist Nachi, is currently on the verge of extinction -- the glass frog Pako, the black jaguar Balam, the quetzal bird Amaya, the tamarin monkey Whiskers, and many others. But the animators have given vibrant, graphic life to these animals, naturally attractive or not, in the hopes that audiences will grow in their fondness for the oddly charming Pako, the wise Balam, the motherly Amaya, among others, and want to enact change to see these animals survive.
And a big part of pulling audiences into the rainforest world was bringing back the nostalgic aesthetics of hand-drawn animation.
“When Anabella approached me, I was like, ‘Let's make it like one of those hand-drawn films, rich and fully animated in a traditional way,’” remembers Perez-Castro. “We both grew up with the classic hand-drawn animated films like The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. So, it's in our DNA. And I think one of the many reasons why I got into the business was because of those films.”
He continues, “It was a pretty ambitious idea and we had to look under every rock to find animators that could work on the film. But people really got into this idea, and we found lots of animators who had been craving to get their hands on animating characters in ways that were very naturalistic. We didn’t want animals that were like Bugs Bunny or from Madagascar. We wanted to reflect the natural world, similar to how they did it in Bambi, and the anatomy of those animals.”
Like the animal characters, the film’s settings are incredibly captivating, from lush greenery and silky waterfalls to regal architecture and menacing volcanoes. In total, Koati’s fictional setting explores roughly one dozen real locations in Latin America, such as the Yucatan and the Amazon, and landmarks specific to those regions, from the grand Iguazu Falls to the Tepuis mountains.
“We even have the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuaries, which are not really in the jungle, so we took some artistic liberties,” notes Perez-Castro. “There are a lot of Mayan motifs, not only in the pyramids but also in the actual jungle where you see flowers designed in a way that’s representative of Mesoamerican cultures. It was a combination of trying to emulate some of that nostalgia that we all had for the hand-drawn animated feel from those Disney classics but, at the same time, giving it this fresh look that is very particular to Latin America.”
Sosa-Dovarganes says the team was extremely diligent with the development stage and took it very seriously, considering the amount of negotiation it took to convince investors and partners that 2D, rather than 3D, was the way to go.
“They didn't understand why we wanted to go back to 2D, but we were very lucky we had people that trusted us,” says Sosa-Dovarganes. “We spent almost two years doing development and I think you can see that in the level of detail of our work. One background, in particular, took us almost four months to approve.”
Pete Denomme serves as a producer on Koati and is one of the only members without a Latin American background, though Sosa-Dovarganes says he has a “big Latin heart.” The Switch VFX and Animation CEO is also no stranger to films centered around highlighting the importance of the world’s diverse forests and the small lives that often are overlooked in the name of economic progress. “The first movie I ever worked on in my animation career was Ferngully, and it's ironic that one of the last films I'm ever going to work on is Koati,” says Denomme. “It's just a full circle for me. “The audience is going to fall in love with the characters and then they are going to fall in love with the story. Ferngully, the storyline and the thoughtfulness in that film, it still resonates today. It’s going to be the same with Koati. It’s going to have a legacy down the road. People are going to keep picking it up because of the environmental aspect and the characters.”
While Koati’s mission is to enact change, Sosa-Dovarganes is adamant that it’s first and foremost, a “feel-good movie,” mixing characters and environments that would never scientifically go together all for the sake of making an impact on the next generation of change-makers and creating a magnificent quilt of Latin American representation.
“The film is not intended to be depressive,” she shares. “It’s not a documentary. That’s not our role. Our role is to get the families engaged and to have them fall in love with the characters. Then, hopefully, that will plant a seed. Though World Wide Fund for Nature has been able to engage the people that care about the environment already, they haven't grown beyond that group. And in order for them to create a real impact, they really need young audiences to get involved.”
She adds, “There's a song in the film called “Together Through Whatever” and, for me, that summarizes this film. It's a message of hope and happiness and that there is a future if we come together.”