Joe Strike is more than impressed with director Steve Loter and DisneyToon Studio’s newest Disney Fairies animated feature.
An invite to interview the director and producer of the latest “Disney Fairies” home video release? Well, what the hell, I can watch a simpering little girls’ video, ask polite questions then sit down and write something snarky for AWN…
That was the plan—until I watched the damn thing, and surprise: if not quite blown away, I found myself rather impressed by Tinker Bell and the Legend of the NeverBeast.
For those unfamiliar with the Disney fairies, Tink had a life before meeting up with Peter Pan—specifically, among her fairy friends in Pixie Hollow, a secluded spot in the far reaches of Neverland. In spite of its title, the focus in Neverbeast is on Tink’s pal Fawn, an animal fairy. Fawn (not unlike My Little Pony’s Pinkie Pie) is easily swept away by her emotions and (like Pony’s Fluttershy) her love for critters. (Early on she inadvertently triggers a hawk attack on the Hollow that might have generated a serious body count were it not for the intervention of the no-nonsense Nyx and her kick-ass SWAT team—I mean scout fairies.)
When Fawn accidently awakens the titular animal, ominous portents begin occurring—and Nyx, suspecting the Neverbeast is a harbinger of doom, will do anything she can to protect the Hollow from the “dangerous” animal…
There’s no stock bad guy in NeverBeast; the villain is fear and hatred of The Other, someone “different” from the rest of “us.” The same theme was at the heart of the first How to Train Your Dragon, and it’s one worth repeating, repeating often in the here and now when too many people—on both sides of a conflict—would if they could annihilate their opposite number.
“We wanted to create a film with the emotional weight of Dumbo, Bambi, Pinocchio—films that really took you on an emotional roller coaster ride with peaks and valleys.” Steve Loter, NeverBeast’s director is speaking. “The movie was inspired by my daughter Calista, actually.”
“There’s a story to that. I grew up in a house with no pets whatsoever; cats, dogs, nothing. Because of that I have a fear of very large dogs—not Chihuahuas, I’m good with them. Years pass, I have a family of my own and my daughter loved one thing above all else.”
“Big dogs?” I’m obliged to ask.
“Very large dogs! Around then she was four and there were lots of dogs in the neighborhood. When she saw a neighbor walking one, she’d throw her arms around it and give it big loving hug. It scared me a little bit—‘is this dog okay to pet?’
“Once I got over that it showed me something really important: she had a huge open heart. I asked her about it and she said ‘all animals are my friends, why wouldn’t they be? The bigger they are, the bigger the love they have to give.’”
Loter, a veteran director of Disney Channel shows like Kim Possible, goes on to describe the workings of DisneyToon Studios, the Disney subdivision responsible for the Fairies series.
“Our executive producer is John Lasseter. The first thing you have to do when you’re hired onto a Fairies film is to pitch three very different ideas. When I pitched Neverbeast, which was idea number two in my lineup, he was immediately struck. He said ‘I see exactly what you’re going for, make that film—we want you to bring what you love to the fairies.’”
The NeverBeast (or, as he comes to be called in the film, “Gruff”) is a chimera, an assemblage of parts to create a sui generis animal. “He has the gait, the skeletal structure of a rhino or hippo, the coarse white fur of a yak, floppy dog ears and an armadillo tail he can hang from,” says Loter.
“He can also swing it around like a cat tail. You can see what a cat’s thinking, its emotions from the way its tail moves. Someone can look at him and think ‘my dog does that…my cat does that—but he’s never done that before!’ It draws them in because he seems familiar and then they’re intrigued by ‘what’s the rest?’”
Gruff sports a flat, muzzle-free face that reminded this writer of Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things, a resemblance Loter readily admits to, adding “[Miyazaki’s] Totoro is in the mix as well.
“There’s a less is more thing—you can get a lot out of him with just an ear twitch. It can bring you in, diminish some of his scariness because it looks so familiar. We had to make sure the beast’s walk looked realistic, because he’s the heart and soul of the movie. If you don’t get the walk cycle right it immediately looks artificial. We created a rough computer rig and sent it to these scientists in Zurich Switzerland. They specialize in CG, muscle structure and movement and refined his walk cycle for us.”
That walk cycle indeed looks realistic—even when Gruff is performing it mid-air, loping gracefully along against a starry night sky thanks to the fairies’ flight-inducing pixie dust. In those moments NeverBeast takes on an ethereal beauty, never more so as in a nighttime sequence near the film’s end. In a farewell ceremony the fairies, carrying tiny lanterns fly alongside Gruff, escorting him down a path bordered with glowing purple flowers, through clouds of floating petals…
Which is not to say the film is lacking in excitement or, in spite of its mostly-female cast and numerous cute animals, is just for girls. “When I was developing the movie I’d practice pitching the story at home. My son wanted to have no part in it—it’s a fairies movie, he’s not interested in it. But he’s hearing me pitch the story—I’m talking about the neverbeast and the scout fairies, they’re doing parkour, they’re doing this…and he got drawn into it.
“All of a sudden every time I was practicing pitching at home, he was front and center, drawing pictures of the Neverbeast, pictures of Nyx—‘she should look like this, she should be like this…’ That’s when I knew we had crossed the line, crossed the boundary [separating a boys’ film from a girls’ film].
“For me they’re strong female characters, but we’re not putting the spotlight on the fact they’re females—it’s Pixie Hollow, everyone is equal and everyone does their jobs very, very well.”
Was there any concern, when the Disney Fairies franchise was in development at the deviation from “canon” in giving Tinker Bell an actual voice?
“There were some initial questions about the decision, but as soon as folks saw we were being respectful to the character of Tinker Bell, they enjoyed it, and they were all aboard. They realized we weren’t putting her into situations that weren’t true to who she was and where she started. She is still that same lovable charismatic character we’ve seen since Peter Pan and [they’re] actually excited now to see her continuing adventures. Despite that initial questioning we’ve had nothing but support and love.”
A final question to Loter: did Calista receive story credit on the film for sparking the original concept?
“No, but she’s in the film as a bunny, a non-conformist bunny who walks instead of hops. That’s her payment.”