Annapurna Interactive, BlueTwelve BlueTwelve's 'Stray' video game, published by Annapurna Interactive
Following the success of its debut feature, Nimona, Annapurna Animation is ready to launch its next phase of movies.
Multiple projects are now in the works as key creative positions have been put in place, including a new project from Nimona co-director Nick Bruno and the next title from Ice Age director Chris Wedge, EW can exclusively report.
Among other intriguing items on the agenda for the division are plans to adapt video games from Annapurna Interactive, the gaming branch of the indie studio. First up is Stray, the award-winning adventure game from the developers at BlueTwelve Studio.
Released in 2022, Stray puts players in control of a stealthy cat who must traverse an underground city populated by robots and mutant bacteria with the help of a friendly drone, B-12. An animated movie based on Stray is in active development.
Annapurna Interactive A 'Stray' cat explores a futuristic city in the game from Annapurna Interactive
Robert Baird, who leads Annapurna Animation with Andrew Millstein, joined his fellow former Disney Animation executive for an interview with EW on a Monday afternoon in late August — having just come from a Stray brainstorming meeting.
"This is a game that's all about what makes us human, and there are no humans in it," he says. "It's a buddy comedy about a cat and a robot, and there's such a hilarious dynamic. So, there's comedy inherent in this, but there's not one human being in this movie. I think it's one of the reasons why the game was incredibly popular, that you are seeing the world through the point of view of an adorable cat. How did they pull that off, and how are we going to pull that off in the movie? We will, even though sometimes it feels impossible, but we know that's the essence of the game and the key to telling the story."
Baird went on to say that there's "something so emotional" that the creators are trying to capture when adapting the game to film. BlueTwelve, he explains, described the game as having a "sort of 'hopepunk' vibe," a narrative concept that optimism is a form of resistance. "I love that term, hopepunk," he says. "I think, if we are going to do this adaptation justice, this is going to be the first and greatest hopepunk movie that's ever been made."
Annapurna Interactive A shot from 'Twelve Minutes,' voiced by James McAvoy, Daisy Ridley, and Willem Dafoe.
Other titles in Annapurna Interactive's gaming roster include the time-loop thriller Twelve Minutes, featuring the voice work of James McAvoy and Daisy Ridley; critically-acclaimed works like Florence, If Found... and Journey; mythic adventures like The Pathless and Ashen; and upcoming games like Cocoon, Thirsty Suitors, and Blade Runner 2033: Labyrinth. Though the division heads won't reveal what other games they're considering for adaptation, Millstein does explain why Stray was the title they went to first.
"First off, it is just wildly popular," he says. "People engage in the game for a variety of reasons, and I think for us at Annapurna, working with different creative people, it's a puzzle. What is it about this game that is so popular? Then the question is, how do you adapt a game into longform storytelling that is incredibly respectful to the game itself and the audiences, but then also is film worthy? The process of that is always part of the challenge."
Elsewhere, Bruno, who co-directed Nimona with Troy Quane, has joined Annapurna Animation as an in-house filmmaker, and is already working on an untitled original animated movie. He's also actively developing several new ideas for animated features.
As for the film Bruno's working on now, Baird won't say much. He does, however, point to the filmmaker's past work on Nimona and 2019's Spies in Disguise, as well as his work as head of animation on 2015's The Peanuts Movie. "You get a sense just from those titles of the type of storyteller he is," Baird says. "A lot of his favorite movies have a sort of Spielbergian sense to them, and so the movie that he is developing with us right now is very much in that arena. It's very high concept, it's very heartfelt, and Nick has a very huge heart and a very big sense of humor. So, it's covering all those bases."
Wedge, who scored a Best Animated Feature nomination for the first Ice Age in 2003 and won the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1999, is currently developing a film for Annapurna Animation titled FOO. "It's a not-perfect acronym for 'fish out of water,' and that's what the story is about," explains Baird. "It's about the first fish ever to climb out of the water and onto land. What you learn in this movie is that was the last thing in the world that that fish wanted to do. It's about his hilarious struggle to get back into the water, but to get back will require a lot of effort and a lot of change on this fish's part. That was the pitch that came out of Wedge's brain that we just loved."
Millstein calls Wedge, who also made 2005's Robots and 2013's Epic, "one of the seminal creators in the world of computer-generated animation." He adds, "The DNA of Chris Wedge as an animator and as a comic storyteller exploring universal themes is absolutely infused in FOO." Baird believes the film finds him "getting back to [his] roots of directing Ice Age and the storytelling that surrounded that movie."
Among the other talent joining the division is Julie Zackary, a former Blue Sky Studios executive and a producer on Nimona, as Head of Animation Production overseeing all aspects of production at Annapurna Animation. Erica Pulcini also joins as Creative Executive to help curate, develop, and further define the division's feature film slate.
Netflix Sir Ballister Boldheart (Riz Ahmed) and Nimona (Chloe Grace Moretz) in 'Nimona'
A common thread between Bruno, Wedge, and Zachary is Blue Sky Studios, which Disney shut down in 2021 after purchasing it from Fox. Wedge had cofounded the animation house that gave audiences the Ice Age and Rio movies, Robots, Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who! (2008), Ferdinand (2017), and Spies in Disguise.
"We were profoundly upset and saddened by the decision in the COVID universe for Blue Sky to get shuttered," Millstein says. "Also, Rob and I have a long track record in the animation business, and it's really predicated on great, respectful relationships with everybody in the process. So, for us to have the benefit of all those relationships that we've developed over many years with people like Chris Wedge or Nick Bruno, or directors and writers and creative people who are scattered throughout the industry, to be able to talk to them and say, 'Hey, we have an opportunity to create something new with Annapurna and make things creatively in a way that you're used to,' is an important conversation to have."
Annapurna Animation isn't trying to replicate Blue Sky Studios, Millstein notes. "Blue Sky was very unique. It had decades of history. There was deep, connective cultural tissue in the organization that you just can't break. It's those kinds of relationships that we're going to build on."
Bruno had been making Nimona with Quane for Blue Sky before the great shuttering, though Annapurna ended up saving that film from cancellation and releasing it through Netflix as the very first feature of Annapurna Animation. Baird acknowledges how impossible it can feel to get animated movies made these days. "This one was that times a thousand," he comments. Despite the great effort to keep Nimona alive, it was the creation and release of the film that helped spark these new projects that are now in development at their animation division.
"We just started to have conversations about, 'This seems to be going well. Maybe there's something that comes after,'" Baird says. "And here we are with what comes after."