Annecy: ‘The Wild Robot’ Footage Debuts to Thunderous Applause, Standing Ovation

Somehow Chris Sanders, the animation legend behind “Lilo & Stitch,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and “The Croods,” had never been to the Annecy International Animation Film Festival. That changed earlier Tuesday, when he showed off footage from his new movie “The Wild Robot,” a Lupita Nyong’o-led story of a robot abandoned on an island coming this fall from DreamWorks Animation. And his first trip to the celebrated animation film festival would have probably been memorable enough, but the response to the footage that they screened was overwhelming – for the crowd and for Sanders himself.

“The Wild Robot” was rapturously received, eliciting a standing ovation for around 20 minutes of actual footage that left Sanders visibly moved.

Before Sanders came out, Margie Cohn, the President of DreamWorks Animation, spoke about the project. She said that they were beguiled by Peter Brown’s original books and knew they could make something special if the project was handled by the right filmmaker. They were thrilled when Sanders, who made “How to Train Your Dragon” and “The Croods” for DreamWorks, agreed to return to the studio and tackle “The Wild Robot.” She said that the film, which will be released around the time of the studio’s 30th anniversary, was a “new DreamWorks classic.”

When Sanders took the stage, he said that he was inspired by things like “Bambi” and talked about how in animation’s move towards computerized imagery, it lost something in its abandonment of illustrative backgrounds and character designs. Sanders had watched what DreamWorks had achieved on “The Bad Guys” and “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” and wanted to push it even further. (Keep in mind that Sanders brought hand-painted watercolor backgrounds to Disney Animation for “Lilo & Stitch,” a practice that had gone out of favor by the late 1940s.) The filmmaker dreamed of a way of turning the loose, impressionistic style of early concept into finished animation.

Sanders recounted a moment when he had been in an art review, critiquing a piece of concept art. Then someone hit a button and the concept art moved. Everything he wanted — the painterly aspects of both character and background, the fluidity of shape and texture — had all been achieved without giving up the dimension or detail that made traditional DreamWorks animation so striking. Thanks to the hard work of countless artists and engineers, Sanders’ dream had become a reality.

Now, onto the footage. Mild spoilers follow.

The first sequence that Sanders showed was the first 15 minutes or so of the movie, which follows a robot named Roz (Lupita Nyong’o), who washes ashore an uninhabited island. This is a wild island, something that Sanders repeatedly hits home – a wave crashes into her, various animals try to disassemble or attack her, there are brutal bouts of weather. But she is determined. She’s a robot designed to perform a task. And after a bear chases her and she ends up crashing into a goose’s nest, destroying an entire family, she finds her purpose: a single egg survives and she becomes determined to raise it. The final moment of this section of footage involves the egg hatching. The young gosling looks at the robot and nuzzles up to her. The robot starts to glow.

Sanders came back out to introduce the second bit of footage, which takes place about halfway through the film. Roz and the gosling, known as Brightbill (and voiced by Kit Connor) have had a falling out. But she still has a mission to accomplish. She needs to teach him to fly before winter, or else he won’t survive. He’s the runt, too. They engage in an uneasy truce – she will teach him how to fly and then, once he goes, he’ll never have to see her again.

Set to a new song recorded for “The Wild Robot,” this extended montage is absolutely stunning. We see Roz practice with Brightbill, encouraging him and making sure he gets the proper training. Roz and her fox BFF Fink (Pedro Pascal) enlist the help of an owl named Thunderbolt, who helps him in the air. It’s so ridiculously sweet, but never cloying or cutesy. There’s a wonderful exchange between Roz and the leader of the geese (voiced by Bill Nighy), who sternly offers support and encouragement. Finally, it’s time for the flock to travel south. Just before he’s about to take off, Brightbill looks back at Roz and asks for her help. He doesn’t need it. But she does.

Brightbill takes off with the rest of the flock, as Roz and Fink look on proudly. Then Roz turns. She starts to say something. “I – ” she begins, then runs to the edge of the forest, to see Brightbill one last time. Nighy’s goose commands a small “V” to fly by Roz. One of Brightbill’s feathers flies off as he passes. Roz reaches out and grabs it.

The auditorium at Annecy was full of gasps and sniffles; many were audibly sobbing. It wasn’t just the animation, how lush and transporting and new and innovative it was, but it was the feeling of the sequence. It was so moving, and with just a handful of words and a perfectly picked pop song as accompaniment. (In some behind-the-scenes footage, head of story Heidi Jo Gilbert, who recently worked on “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” said that Sanders himself storyboarded the entire sequence.)

When the footage ended and the lights came up, the audience rose to its feet and started applauding. It’s rare to get a standing ovation, it’s rarer still to get two. The first one greeted Sanders as he walked out on stage. The second was at the end of the footage. And the presentation wasn’t even over. The applause continued, and you could see how moved Sanders was. He rocked back on his heels a little bit, like the enthusiasm had actually knocked into him. He clutched his chest.

Sanders went on, talking about some of the other inspirations for the movie, including the Syd Mead-indebted world that Roz comes from. And he showed the new trailer, which hits later Tuesday. But nothing came close to matching the energy, the excitement and the heartfelt swell of emotion that accompanied the footage from the film.

Based on everything that was screened at Annecy on Tuesday, “The Wild Robot” is going to be very special indeed.

“The Wild Robot” hits theaters on Sept. 27.

The post Annecy: ‘The Wild Robot’ Footage Debuts to Thunderous Applause, Standing Ovation appeared first on TheWrap.